Saturday, November 15, 2014

Boston Baroque — Monteverdi Vespers

On Friday evening I attended a performance by Boston Baroque of Monteverdi's 1610 composition "Vespro della Beata Vergine." It was the first time I had attended a live performance, although I've known of it for approximately 40 years. I was staying at my grandmother's one Saturday evening so she wouldn't be alone when my uncle was away, and I listened to the Boston Symphony concert broadcast. It was the Vespro della Beata Vergine, conducted by their Assistant Conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas.

I had gradually become familiar with baroque music — Handel, Vivaldi, Bach, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, perhaps Gabrieli — but I had never heard anything like the Vespers: the use of chant (with which I was familiar from my time at St. Anselm Abbey) to underlay florid passages, the vocal technique of rapid staccato on a single note, the "echo" repetitions. Listening to it felt like discovering a new musical world. Since then I've bought several recordings of the work, and it still fascinates.

So I was glad to see that it was to be performed this week in Boston. The performance was very satisfying. The soloists all sang well (although the sopranos seemed to be coquettish in their facial expressions and body language, which was unfortunate), and apart from some pitch trouble with the cornet toward the end, the orchestra was fine as well. The audience rightly gave the performers a prolonged ovation.

Here are a couple of samples to give you some idea of what so astounded me.

This is the introductory verse of the vespers:
I wonder what is was like the first time this was performed to have all that suddenly explode upon the traditional chanting of the opening words.

Next comes the first psalm, Psalm 110:
Here after the first line is given in the traditional chant, we here the bass delivering the chant for every second verse under the florid music of the rest of the ensemble.

Later comes the Motet "Duo Seraphim" based on Isaiah 6:3, and 1 John 5:7 in the Vulgate (The Johannine Comma):
This contains the staccatos on a single note, which I had never heard before.

There are several videos of the whole thing, and if this has whetted your appetite for it, you can find links easily enough, But at any rate, I think these excerpts should give some idea of what hit me that Saturday evening decades ago. I've given url's because I'm not sure the videos will play from the embeds.

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