Monteverdian mystery, magic and majesty from L’Arpeggiata at the Barbican

A discontented and depressed composer demonstrates his talents in the hope of employment elsewhere?  Is that how we are to understand the publication in Venice, in 1610, of Monteverdi’s Vespers – as a Renaissance sales pitch?  How else to explain the juxtaposition of old and new styles, the instrumental and vocal virtuosity, the variety of colour, the structural complexity, the stylistic diversity, and the sheer length of the Vespers

What patron would put his hand in his pocket for this eccentric compendium?  What ‘special event’ might demand such a musical montage?  Even though liturgical ‘impurity’ was not uncommon at this time, the non-liturgical texts of the Vespers motets do not indicate an occasion on which all the elements of the work could have been performed together, in their entirety.  Yet, the general outline conforms to a normal liturgical pattern of five psalm settings alternating with solo and duet motets, alongside which there’s an instrumental sonata, a hymn and two Magnificats.  Some editions, such as that by Denis Stevens, leave out the concerto and sonata, and substitute antiphons.

The Vespers were dedicated to Pope Paul V, along with a set of Part Books for the Missa in illo tempore, so one might presume that together the two works were designed to demonstrate that Monteverdi could embrace the old and the new: the prima prattica of Palestrina, and the almost shocking theatricality and musical rhetoric of the seconda prattica madrigal and the nascent opera.  It seems reasonable to assume that this was the work of a composer – afflicted by personal and professional grief – looking for a new start: for employment beyond the court of the Gonzaga Dukes in Mantua.  The Vespers was never reprinted – which might suggest that it was designed as a presentation volume, and never intended for performance, perhaps?  

To be honest, such unanswerable questions really didn’t matter in the Barbican Hall, when the ten singers and twelve instrumentalists of Christina Pluhar’s L’Arpeggiata strolled assuredly onto the stage, and launched into the ‘Deus in adiutorium’, turning it into a bold and brazen dance, reflective, perhaps, of the grandeur of the Gonzaga court.  Two things seemed striking.  First, how simple: ironically, Monteverdi’s magnificence is built from plain means – cantus firmus, strophic variations and suchlike.  Second, how glorious! – the striving for endless variation, the expressive directness, the devil-may-care theatricality of harmony and instrumentation, of colour and contrast.  Pluhar relished every ounce of Monteverdi’s showmanship; there was little sacred solemnity here – rather the primitive and the sophisticated rubbed shoulders with a rawness and beauty that was absolutely compelling.  I could have done without the ‘arty’ lighting’, but I guess it was fairly unintrusive.  The V-shaped platform, with the organ nestled in the crux, facilitated some well-coordinated rearrangements of the personnel.

‘Dixit Dominus’ is the first of the Psalms, and here the conversational quality, as the instruments picked up the vocal counterpoint, conveyed an ‘in the moment’ alertness.  It was lovely to watch the laid back cornetti players, Doron Sherwin and Gawain Glenton, so evidently enjoying their fellow musicians’ performances – all smiles and nods and foot-taps, and I’m sure that Sherwin was singing along at times.  Pluhar magically elided the shifting tempi and styles, smoothing over the gaps.  If one had a misgiving, it might be that in the large Hall, though the dry acoustic aided the drama of the vocal interplay, it didn’t magnify the ensemble in the collective celebrations, and the varied repetitions of the ‘Gloria Patri’ sometimes sounded a bit thin.

There were moments, as in ‘Laetatus Sum’ with its wonderfully lithe viol introduction, when it felt as if one had been transported into the middle of one of Orfeo’s strophic variations.  Then, the close working of the vocal strands in ‘Nisi Dominus’ hypnotised.  And, ‘Lauda Jerusalem’ which pushed the voices high and seemed to deliberately provoke with its irregularities of phrasing and structure – the tenor sandwiched between two vocal trios – drove towards a climax, with flamboyant rhetoric and vigour.

And, what of the secular-text motets – of which there is nothing similar in Monteverdi’s oeuvre until we reach the Seventh Book of Madrigals, published in Venice in 1619? Well, Nicholas Mulroy relished the madrigalian intensity of ‘Nigra Sum’, the text drawn from the Song of Songs, sinking low and dark for his opening declaration, “I am black”.  His accentuation of the text transported one into the most lyrical passages of Orfeo and there was an almost plainsong-like purity at the close.  In ‘Pulchra Es’ (more Song of Songs sensuality) soprano Céline Scheen and mezzo-soprano Giuseppina Bridelli baited each other with delicious taunts, “Turn thine eyes away from me”.  Then, ‘Duo Seraphim’ resurrected the ghosts of the Three Ladies of Ferrara, as the tenors Joshua Ellicott and Mulroy were joined by haute tenor Jan Van Elsacker, the voices piling in luscious layers as the harmonies circled and then distilling in a wonderful unison, “and these three are one”.  The text might be sacred, but this music was sexily secular.

‘Audi Coelum’ brought madrigalian ornamentation and operatic echo effects, and so much joy in the suppleness of the variations, but, then, a harmonic wrench with the supplication to Mary to serve “as a comfort to the wretched” – a heart-squeeze of minor mode plangency, followed by the bittersweetness of a tierce de Picardie.  What musical bliss.

The instrumental Sonata sopra sancta Maria emphasised the sheer scale of Monteverdi’s conception.  The Hymn ‘Ave Maria Stella’ stunned with its invention, each of the seven verses set differently.  Then, in the Magnificats the ensemble palette painted each of the thirteen sections with distinctive musical brushstrokes, bound together by the organ.

The final ‘Gloria Patri’ began in sombre tones but Pluhar and her terrific musical team – who were clearly having a ball – masterfully released its musical splendour.  

Claire Seymour

L’Arpeggiata: (Christina Pluhar, artistic & musical direction), Jorge Jimenez & Jesus Merino Ruiz (baroque violin) Anna Nowak & Vincenzo Capezzuto (baroque alto) Rodney Prada (viola da gamba), Diana Vinagre (baroque cello) Doron Sherwin & Gawain Glenton (cornetto), Laura Agut, Emily White & Guy Morley (trombone), Josep Maria Marti Duran (theorbo), Daniel Espasa (organ)

Chorus: Céline Scheen (soprano), Giuseppina Bridelli (mezzo-soprano) Benedetta Mazzucato (contralto), Jan van Elsacker (alto/tenor), Nicholas Mulroy & Joshua Ellicott (tenor), Dingle Yandell & Hubert Claessens (bass-baritone), Greg Skidmore (bass)

Barbican Hall, London; Tuesday 14th December 2021.

ABOVE: L’Arpeggiata rehearsing at the Barbican (c) Barbican