Monteverdi by The Sixteen at Wigmore Hall

It is a work notable for its assimilation of old and new styles, and
liturgical and secular elements, though the precise origins and intention of
the large-scale, 90-minute composition are unknown, and have been the subject
of lively musicological debate. First printed in Venice in 1610, the work may
have been an ‘audition piece’ for a musical position in that city at a time
when Monteverdi was still in the employ of the Duke of Gonzaga in Mantua.
Whatever the context, by 1613 Monteverdi was working at St. Mark’s in Venice;
he was not to compose another entire Vespers, but he did produce settings of
some of the individual biblical texts which form the service. And, it was a
selection of these works, arranged in almost-symmetrical formation across the
two halves of the concert, which The Sixteen performed, under the direction of
Harry Christophers.

Framing the programme were two settings of Psalm 100, Dixit Dominus
(‘The Lord said’), the first drawn from the composer’s virtuosic
collection of sacred works, Selva morale e spirtuale of 1641.
Listening to this lively 8-voice work — which was accompanied by violins,
cello, theorbo, harp and organ — I was struck by the arresting vivacity of
the individual musical lines. In contrast to the perfectly blended tone of
ensembles such as The Tallis Scholars, Harry Christophers encouraged the
singers to bring individual character and colour to their vocal parts, while
never sacrificing unity and coherence. The result was ‘operatic’ in effect;
voices dramatically moved to the fore and then retreated, asserting their
dynamic role in the narrative, then withdrawing to allow other voices to hold
sway. Solos alternated animatedly with ensemble textures, and the two violins
added their own vibrant interaction. Such was the spirited nature of the
rhythmic movement of the inner voices that at times the work seemed more
festive and dance-like than devotional. Christophers was a flexible guide,
creating changes of pace within and between individual episodes, complementing
and enhancing the variations of timbre. Arriving at the fifth stanza’s
soprano duet, ‘De torrente in via bibet:/ Propterea exaltabit caput.’ (He
shall drink of the brook in the way: therefore shall he lift up his head.), we
seemed to enter the world of the madrigal, so lilting and sweet were the
sighing phrases. The closing ‘Gloria Patri’ moved from homophonic grandeur
to impressive floridity.

The ‘mirror’ work at the close of the concert was Monteverdi’s 1650
Dixit Dominus, also for eight voices. Large parts of this setting are
identical to that from Selva Morale e Spirituale. While the 1650 work
is less complex than the earlier publication, and so may in fact have been
written first, with the lines ‘Judicabit in nationibus’ (He shall judge
among the heathen), the voices engaged in gloriously complex rhythmic debates
and the subsequent ‘De torrente’ was enriched by exciting harp

The second Dixit Dominus was published in Monteverdi’s posthumous
collection Messa et salmi, which also contained the remaining items in
the programme, including the two settings of Confitebor tibi Domine
(‘Psalm 111, I will praise you Lord’) that formed the next ‘inner
layer’. The first is for solo soprano. The theorbo’s contribution to the
quiet instrumental opening was particularly expressive, and the dancing
ritornello for violins which is interspersed between the voice’s ornate
melodies might have been drawn from Orfeo. Elin Manahan Thomas’s
soprano was agile and light, and she confidently shaped the performance,
manipulating the tempo and interacting with the instrumental parts in imitative
sequences. A tenor is added for the second Confitebor, and Mark Dobell
and Grace Davidson, accompanied by the violins and continuo, made much of the
madrigalian chromaticism and word-painting: ‘Exquisita in omnes voluntates
eius.’ ([the Lord’s works are studied by all who delight in them)
‘Misericors et miserator Dominus’ (merciful and compassionate is the Lord)
was passed expressively between the voices, as if to emphasis the duality of
His qualities, underscored by dissonance. Later, the unification of the voices
for ‘Fidelia omnia mandata eius’ (All his promises are ordained) was
beautifully enacted. The harpsichord’s sweeping flourishes celebrated the
glory of His divine justice and the cello continuo line contributed eloquently
to the whole.

Monteverdi’s 1650 Laetatus Sum (Psalm 122, ‘I was glad’) for
six voices was mirrored in the second half by two works:Laudate Dominum
omnes gentes
(Psalm 117) — here performed as a bass duet — and
Lauda Jerusalem a 3. The ostinato of Laetatus Sum rolled
forwards compelling — and the change to a triple meter and back further
energised the work — as the duetting voices, first sopranos, then tenors and
finally bass, skipped and twirled vivaciously above. The high tenor lines were
bright and strong; the darker basses vigorous and nimble. The paired sopranos
blended wonderfully with the two violins, the sonorities seeming to imitate
each other, almost deceiving the ear. The homophonous ‘Gloria Patri’ was a
powerful statement of ‘oneness’ after such diversity. After the melismatic
liveliness of the Laudate Dominum, the monotone ‘Amen’ presented a
striking contrast. The three male voices of Lauda Jerusalem (BTT)
again relished every opportunity to indulge in expressive textual heightening.
The melismas, dissonances and quivers of the lines ‘Emittet verbum suum, et
liquefaciet ea:/Flabit spirit eius, et fluent aquae’ (He shall send out his
word, and shall melt them: his wind shall blow, and the waters shall run) were
gloriously dramatic, and the low, narrowly spaced vocal parts in the final
lines of the ‘Gloria Patri’ were thrillingly dark-hued.

Two settings of Monteverdi’s Nisi Dominus (Psalm 127, ‘Unless
the Lord builds a house’), the first for three voices, the second for six,
surrounded the central ‘core’ — Cavalli’s Magnificat, also
published in 1650. The first Nisi was splendidly theatrical,
characterised by seemingly spontaneous invention, as the singers — alto,
tenor then bass — sang their verses in turn, while the flexibility and
responsiveness of the singers in the six-part version was notable. After such
imaginative ingenuity, the series of solos, duets and trios of Cavalli’s
Magnificat seemed, to this ear at least, somewhat prosaic, though
there was no lessening of the vibrancy of the delivery of the contrapuntal
interplay — and the contrast of timbre offered by the commencement, in the
middle of the work, of a chaconne bass line introduced, as so many of the
Monteverdi works had done, a secular tone within the sacred.

Everything about this concert was consummately prepared and executed; even
the complex choreography required as the requisite musicians and singers
entered, traversed and quitted the platform throughout the evolving programme.
This was a performance that was undoubtedly much more than the sum of its

Claire Seymour

Programme and performers:

Claudio Monteverdi: Dixit Dominus (Primo) (from Selva
morale e spirituale
), Confitebor tibi Domine (Primo),Laetatus
a6, Nisi Dominus a3; Francesco Cavalli: Magnificat;
Claudio Monteverdi: Nisi Dominus a6, Laudate Dominum
omnes gentes
(for solo bass), Lauda Jerusalem a3, Confitebor
tibi Domine

The Sixteen: director: Harry Christophers; soprano: Grace Davidson,
Elin Manahan Thomas; tenor: Jeremy Bud, Mark Dobell, Steven Harrold, George
Pooley; bass: Jimmy Holliday, Stuart Young; violin 1: Simon Jones, violin 2:
Andrea Jones, cello: Joseph Crouch, harp: Frances Kelly, theorbo: David Miller,
organ & harpsichord: Alastair Ross. Wigmore Hall, London, Tuesday
3rd November 2015.

image_description=Claudio Monteverdi
product_title=Monteverdi by The Sixteen at Wigmore Hall
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Claudio Monteverdi