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Luminous Refinement, Sublimity and Connoisseurship


Lionel Meunier, Artistic Director of Vox Luminis, led a five instrumental- and nine vocal- contingent through Claudio Monteverdi’s valedictory compilation, “Selva morale e spirituale” (The Moral and Spiritual Forest) with some appealing detours into the composer’s other collections at Jordan Hall last night for Boston Early Music Festival. And early times it was as the ensemble seamlessly and elegantly dispensed masterful settings of mass portions and motets of the compleat Claudio (1567–1643) who perhaps fathered opera, expanded sacred idioms, as well as devising lighter and more infectious fare such as the infamously relentless “Zefiro torna,” our first exposure to his oeuvre.

Five of the nine numbers came from among the 40 examples of his craft that the composer compiled into this overgrown summa. And the concert title also set the righteous and intense moral and spiritual commitment that obtained throughout. Meunier choreographed an almost continuous traversal (with only three stops for applause and tuning) by imposing (apparently) improvised instrumental interludes which allowed individuals to reset between works without breaking out of mood or character. And while the character range tended to be narrow and the affect occasionally a might twee, we did certainly hear varieties of instrumentation and vocal lines, from a solo with cabinet organ to a tutti of 14. Just when one began to despair of hearing anything beyond some clear setting of sacred texts, often in fast-slow, fast alternations, with men, women, and instruments taking turns, some chromatics, spiky dissonances, and challenging contraplexities would wake us from somewhat predictable tune and cadence sequences.

David Schulenberg’s essay on these pages on the Monteverdi’s second Vespers set seems to explain this compilation as well:

The style is distinctive, although one must speak here of at least two distinct styles. The motets, for one, two, or three solo voices (always with organ continuo), resemble in a general way the similarly scored settings of secular poetry that Monteverdi published during the following decades in his last two books of madrigals. The motets share with them an intense musical rhetoric, seemingly reflecting an urge to paint musically every affective or pictorial phrase in the text. This has been criticized by musicologist Gary Tomlinson as rendering the composer’s secular works of the period mannered and incoherent.

The psalms and the Magnificat, on the other hand, incorporate the so-called reciting tones, which would have been chanted in an everyday Vespers service. Consisting largely of a single repeated note, these “tones,” when embedded within Monteverdi’s polyphony, produce stretches of music based on a single harmony. All the busy counterpoint and embellishment sung simultaneously by the other voices cannot disguise the essentially static nature—however ingenious Monteverdi’s varying ways of incorporating the reciting tone into the texture, and however grand the sound.

The psalm settings sometimes treat phrases of the text almost as pictorially as the motets. Yet other passages are austere, not obviously expressive or engaging with the words directly. Similar considerations apply to the Magnificat, whose text is a sort of New Testament psalm. (Each verse of Monteverdi’s setting, although even more varied in treatment of voices and instruments, uses the same basic technique as the psalms.)

Hence another challenge for the director of a complete performance is to avoid longueurs in the psalms, while encouraging the soloists toward a coherent and unmannered interpretation of the motets. Beyond that, every movement poses other challenges, often profound, for players as well as singers: virtuoso figuration for the soloists, tricky rhythms and counterpoint for the ensemble. How well did they succeed?

Organist Anthony Romaniuk sat at the vertex of a V-shaped arrangement, which allowed him, the only player never to leave the stage, to glue together the ensemble, though he stepped out at times with some bright and percussively chiffy solos. The changing arrays of singers stood on flanking risers with the two violins (Tuomo Suni and Johannes Frisch), violinist Benoît vanden Bemden, and theorboist Simon Linné on the floor in front of them. The audience could see the hardly inconspicuous 6’ 8” Meunier conducting, but he was pretty much seeing the backs and sides of the players and singers, who seemed more or less on their own. Such was the level of instrumental and vocal excellence that no byway of the forest, no matter how tortuous, multi-voiced or steep and slippery seemed to need a pathfinder to keep bearings. And while none of the singers evinced voices that we necessarily would detour to hear in a solo recital, they blended well and emerged in confident and elegant solo lines as required. The lack of photos and bio profiles made individual callouts impossible.

Lionel Meunier (Tom Blatyon photo)

The complete bill ran something over an hour:

Gloria, SV 258
from Selva morale e spirituale, 1640
Dixit Dominus II, SV 264
from Selva morale e spirituale, 1640
Beatus vir I, SV 268
from Selva morale e spirituale, 1640
O bone Jesu, o piissime Jesu, SV 313 (instrumental version)
from Promptuarii musici, Johannes Donfrid, 1622
Adoramus te Christe, SV 289
from Libro primo de motetti, Giulio Bianchi, 1620
Crucifixus, SV 259
from Selva morale e spirituale, 1640
Laetaniae della Beata Vergine, SV 204
from Libro secondo de motetti, Giulio Bianchi, 1620
O bone Jesu, o piissime Jesu, SV 313 (vocal version)
from Promptuarii musici, Johannes Donfrid, 1622
Magnificat I, SV 281
from Selva morale e spirituale, 164

This non-enthusiast found much to admire in the always pleasing and ingratiating encyclopedic and well-packaged traversal of moral and musical grammar and rhetoric lessons, though listeners in the composer’s time would certainly not have imbibed this repertoire in this manner, and we might have better suspended disbelief in an ecclesiastical context. Others wanted to hear both more instrumental music and some acapella singing. Standout moments included the strikingly dark chromatic descent in Crucixius, the very intensely slow and religious fervor in Laetaniae della Beata Vergine, the soprano and alto duet in O bone Jesu, o piissime Jesu, which, coming through like clear morning light through vivid stained glass, set up the closing Magnificat. Every singer and player could execute perfect turns, mordants, appoggiaturas, and other coloratura devices…but why no trills? And it must be said that Monteverdi really wrote well for women. No boy sopranos and altos for him.

Speaking with excellent unamplified enunciation and projection, Meunier thanked the medium-sized crowd for its enthusiastic response, which, he said would have earned VL a return engagement if that had not already been inked again with BEMF. For an encore, we would be hearing “Christe Adoramus Te,” not to be confused, he joked, with “Adoramus te Christe,” which had come midway through the concert. He seemed slightly annoyed that many of his statement produced laughter.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer


2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Meunier’s comment about Christe Adoramos Te was delivered with genuine wit and elicited smiles from his singers as well. The man is not only a terrific musician but very funny. I saw no signs of annoyance, just the straight-faced delivery of someone with a droll sense of humor.

    Comment by Rob — November 14, 2022 at 9:25 am

  2. He did say something to the effect of “I don’t understand why you [the audience] find what i am saying so funny.”

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — November 14, 2022 at 11:49 am

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