Monteverdi Vespers of 1610 (Barbican, 23 June 2017)

The Hipermestra post got really long-winded (out of necessity) and in the meanwhile I saw two other shows, one of which was Monteverdi’s Vespro alla beata vergine. I just got Harnoncourt’s book in which he also discusses the interpretation of this work and thought about reading it before writing this but I’m a slow reader (not just a slow writer) and it’s starting to annoy me that posts are piling up.

Academy of Ancient Music | Choir of the AAM
Robert Howarth director/harpsichord
Rowan Pierce soprano
Louise Alder soprano
Charles Daniels tenor
Thomas Hobbs tenor
Richard Latham bass

This is a work I first heard around the time I was getting better acquainted with Monteverdi in general, and usually return to Gardiner’s version with the wonderful Monteverdi Choir; I liked it immediately. The AAM Choir isn’t quite as accomplished (well, few are) but they did a very solid job. Chiefly they were excellently drilled and the interaction (balance, dynamics) between the female and male side came off beautifully. My main complaint is I would’ve liked a bit more personality.

Since Ariodante I have pretty much changed my mind on the Barbican. Yes, this year my outings there have been a lot more satisfying; perhaps my seat choices were wiser since the semi-disastrous St Matthew Passion. This time I sat on the left side of the second level and again had no issues with acoustics. Although I had to go into work very early and later make it into town, which is something I try to avoid because I’m inevitably tired, it was my seatmate who fell asleep within 10min.

Ok, there’s plainchant but still – this is very exciting musical writing, with some striking chord changes and the further contrast of plainchant and not so plain singing. Hipermestra also helped; I noticed every time I see something by Cavalli I get an urge to go through Monteverdi’s oeuvre for a few solid days (this time it was the ’93 Poppea from Bologna) so I was in the right mental place to absorb this stuff.

I thought Alder sounded a tad too operatic in the context (though she toned it down as the evening progressed) whilst Pierce was in even more need of a defined personality than the choir. The men seemed better positioned stylistically for this work. Daniels reminded me a lot of Anthony Rolfe Johnson in tone and delivery (but less emotionally nuanced), with a very good understanding of the style and some beautiful touches dynamic-wise, though quite alarmingly short of breath when it came to coloratura. His breath control seemed fine when single long notes were required. Latham was fine but didn’t have all that much to sing.

The vocal star of the evening for me was Hobbs, with a lovely high tenor, very good projection, easy coloratura, excellent style (the only one who got inside the chords in search of harmony and as such was a pleasure to listen to (the thing JDD explains here1; that’s the thing with this early music, as far as I understand it: you, the singer/soloist, have a lot of room to express your imagination or tremendous responsibility to make the whole thing live – when it works it’s revealed as particularly affecting music2). His duets with Daniels were some of the best things all evening, along with the work of the choir.

The true kult Early Music orchestra (complete with Baroque bassoon & trombones, cornetti and, of course, theorbo) is rather fine; Howarth kept them in a tight leash, to the point the choir overpowered them in several occasions. More power to the choir 😉 But I could follow some nice lines for the double bass and smooth cornetto work.

It was an interesting evening combining the peculiarly English type of relaxed atmosphere with a kind of music that manages to withstand the passing of centuries. Maybe it’s because Monteverdi allows you so much wiggle room that the music never feels dated.


  1. I recommend listening to the entire sequence, it’s one of my favourite JDD Masterclass moments, a total light bulb! moment. 
  2. I don’t know if it’s affecting in a spiritual sense, because I’m not particularly spiritual, though I do get the general sense of that from certain performances of certain things. Again I don’t quite think AAM is hitting that spot and perhaps Monteverdi’s music itself is rather worldlier than that. Nevertheless, it does have a very strong emotional impact, but a quieter sort, none of that I’m going to pass out deal, though I’m occasionally on the brink of tears – but that’s not the essence of it. It’s not about tears of sighing, rather more abstract yet still alive. 
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About dehggial

opera lover with a predilection for Mozart and Baroque

Posted on June 27, 2017, in barbican, baroque. Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. ( ❤ 93 bologna poppea. now back to reading while drapping over seat at airport…)

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  2. is this the one with trumpets and the tenors standing on opposite side ecoing each other? i remember this was the first Monteverdi work i heard live.. right before i read that Poppea review of yours in small venue in London.. before discovering SMingardo in fatigues..

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