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Monteverdi - Vespers of 1610
Ripon Cathedral, 13 March 2010

Monteverdi flyer

The 400th anniversary of Monteverdi's marvellous setting of the Vespers has brought this magnificent work to the fore this year and on Saturday evening it was a privilege to hear a performance given by the Harrogate Choral Society in the superb setting of Ripon Cathedral.

No less than seven young soloists joined the choir along with two groups of authentic instrumental players. The 18th Century Sinfonia, a small group of period string players, and The English Cornett and Sackbutt Ensemble, a chamber organ and two chitarrones gave us more than a glimpse of the sounds Monteverdi would have expected to hear. Juxtaposing these small and intimate ensembles were the seemingly vast numbers of the 140 strong Harrogate Choral Society sitting in double choir formation to achieve antiphonal effects and being required to sing in up to ten parts.

Herein lay much of the interest in the performance; the marrying of the authentic period instruments against the vast forces of the modern choral society.

The setting of the Vespers of 1610 is unique in the choral repertoire where the rhythmic complexities of the music are unusual to amateur singer, soloist and audience alike. It was clear that much work had gone into the preparation of the syncopated choral writing and the clear, bright and often powerful singing of the first sopranos lifted almost every chorus, drawing attention to these intricacies and presenting a seemingly effortless musical line. They were well supported by the rest of the choir, though the clarity of the tenor and bass lines was not as successful.

The opening chorus immediately set the tone for the evening giving the performance a bright start. Repeated block chords sung by the choir as a bold statement contrasted well with the dancing rhythms Monteverdi had written into the orchestration. Laudate pueri saw the choir in full flow bringing the best out of the dance rhythms in the chorus parts while the Nisi Dominus brought out the cross rhythms to great effect, most particularly in the two soprano parts. Of these large scale choruses the eight part Lauda Jerusalem in the second half was, for me, the highlight. It had drive and momentum, excitement and thrilling top notes again from the sopranos and the cross-rhythms in the final Amens brought the movement to a grand climax.

The group of soloists was relatively young and, while much of their performance was accomplished in manner, the idiosyncrasies of the Monteverdi style were not always successfully met. Bethany Seymour brought assurance to the platform. Her bright, easy tone, carried well. Her relaxed manner was a delight and she gave the most satisfying of stylistic performances. Supporting her as second soprano and with a similar voice quality but never matching her confidence was Joanna Patócs. One real highlight was their beautifully sung duet Pulchra es, where these two sopranos achieved unanimity of purpose most successfully.

Matthew Lennox gave an authoritative account of the alto solos leaving us wishing there was more for him to do. His diction was crisp and as clear as any of the soloists. In spite of singing from behind the choir and some considerable distance from the audience in his one verse of the hymn Ave Maris stella every word could be heard beautifully.

On Peter Wilman and Adrian Salmon lay the majority of the solo work but their different tone colours meant that they were an unfortunate coupling. Neither had the greatest of projection and Adrian Salmon's habit of swaying as he sang was a considerable distraction. In their individual solos in Nigra sum the contrasts in the timbre of their voices provided interest but the duet work was less successful. Audi coelum saw Adrian Salmon singing from behind the choir making use of the splendid acoustic of the cathedral. Here the echo effect was memorable not least for the differences between the platform solos of Peter Wilman and the slight variations of the echo which followed from a distance.

The two basses Philip Wilcox and Alistair Ollerenshaw both have fine and well matched voices. Philip had the lion share of the solo work and gave an assured performance but one was aware that the projection of this fine bass baritone instrument occasionally dominated the texture. Alistair also has a fine voice, particularly strong in the upper register, which he exploited to its full potential in the bass duet Quia fecit towards the end of the work.

The two instrumental ensembles gave us a splendid account of the sounds Monteverdi might have expected and in so doing were able to transport us back 400 years. The thinner timbre of the strings, the clarity of tone and the dance-like quality of their ensemble playing was magnificent to hear. Equally impressive, were the delightful smaller scale sounds (compared to modern alternatives) of the cornetts and sackbutts; the two ensembles sitting in antiphonal positions. There were many highlights in the performance of these instrumental groups but in the Sonata Sopra Sancta Maria we were able to hear their skills to the full. Antiphonal effects, dance passages, intricate solo work in the accompaniment of a group of about a dozen sopranos and altos singing with great assurance, clarity and style.

This was by no means a performance without flaws, and that is hardly surprising from a work of such complexity. Bringing together the different styles of the authentic instrumental ensemble, with a large amateur choral society and a young group of soloists presented the performers with a great challenge. The choir's efforts were magnificent. They need energy, stamina and real concentration to bring this work to such a fine conclusion. The balance of male and female voices - 124 female voices and 45 male voices - was unfortunate and in the multipart textures exaggerated the strong tone quality of the greater numbers of sopranos and altos. Nevertheless as a combination the choir were capable of producing many thrilling choruses.

Undoubtedly the work of Andrew Padmore, the choir's inspirational conductor, in managing these diverse and sometimes wilful forces with insight and clarity deserves the highest praise. This was not an easy task for him, but his concentration, energy and dynamic delivery drew everyone into a performance of a monumental, complex and unusual work. The performance was always full of directness, commitment and excitement which was communicated most effectively to the highly appreciative audience.

John Dunford