EX CATHEDRA | Monteverdi Vespers at the Three Choirs Festival, Gloucester

Three Choirs Festival (4) :  Claudio Monteverdi, Vespers of 1610, Ex Cathedra Choir, Soloists and Baroque Ensemble; His Majesty’s Sagbutts and Cornetts conducted by Jeffrey Skidmore. Gloucester Cathedral 9.8.2007 (JQ)

As part of the 2007 Three Choirs Festival the splendours of seventeenth-century Venice were brought to twenty-first-century Gloucester and its Cathedral by the Birmingham-based Ex Cathedra under the direction of their founder, Jeffrey Skidmore.

Mr Skidmore has been living with Monteverdi’s Vespers, as a performer, listener and conductor for nearly four decades now. Writing in the programme he told us that this performance was to be Ex Cathedra’s fourteenth “and the work is as exciting, as dangerous, as scary and as challenging as ever….The work defies complacency; new details, new solutions suddenly jump out at you, and there is always a feeling of being controversial.”

On this occasion Skidmore included all the music in Monteverdi’s 1610 publication, excluding the Mass setting and the second setting of the Magnificat. He included, very correctly, plainchant antiphons before each psalm setting, choosing antiphons for the Feast of the Assumption (August 15), the source for which was a collection of antiphons published inVenice in 1607, so almost contemporaneously with theVespers. The antiphons were sung in unison by the whole choir. I don’t know if some purists might have objected that only male voices should have been used for the antiphons but if this was “inauthentic” I can’t say it bothered me in the slightest.

His solution to the often vexed questions of pitch and transposition of some of the pieces in the Vespers was to perform the setting of Lauda Jerusalem down just a tone and to leave the Magnificat at its published pitch.

All this technical detail is of huge importance and it was extremely helpful to read beforehand Mr Skidmore’s succinct exposition of the issues, on which I’ve drawn freely in the preceding paragraphs. However, the key question is, what did the performance sound like?

The forces employed were suitably modest. I counted forty singers in the choir – from which the soloists were drawn – and the instrumental ensemble comprised two violins, a ‘cello and three each of sackbuts and cornetts. The continuo group comprised a chamber organ and a theorbo. The performers were ranged on three sides of a hollow square with the continuo group facing the conductor and, for the most part the vocal soloists moved to stand beside the continuo players to deliver their solos. I mention all this partly because I think the scale and layout was highly relevant to the success of the performance. Also, the disposition of the performers, especially the involvement of the soloists within the choir, was not only authentic but, for me, it emphasised the collegiate nature of the whole enterprise.

Right from the start it was clear, from the vigorous, enthusiastic way in which the opening Versicle, ‘Deus in adjutorium meum intende’ was delivered, that this was to be a lively rendition of the Vespers and it turned out that this movement gave an excellent foretaste of what was to follow. The performance had undoubtedly been prepared with scrupulous attention to detail, but it hadn’t been over-prepared so as to eliminate a refreshing feeling of spontaneity. Throughout the evening the choir responded to Skidmore’s clear but never ostentatious direction with good attack and buoyancy of rhythm. In those sections where a smoother, more warm style was appropriate, the singers were equally diligent. In this opening Versicle I enjoyed especially the lilt that was imparted to the triple-time rhythms. The choral tone was bright and well focused here and throughout the evening and the textures were consistently clear. The only criticism I would have, and it’s a mild one, is that from where I was sitting the choir sounded to be somewhat light in the bass – but better lightness than any hint of heaviness in such music as this!

In the setting of ‘Laudate Pueri’ smaller groups of singers were used at times in contrast to the main choir. This was imaginatively done and gave welcome variety of texture. ‘Laetatus sum’ includes some florid writing for the choir as well as for the cameo soloists and all these passages were convincingly negotiated.  For ‘Nisi Dominus’ two of the sackbut players were dispatched to each end of the platform to play in concert with their respective halves of the choir. From my side aisle seat I couldn’t really judge how effective this was but I suspect those members of the audience that were seated in the nave got a good antiphonal balance.

The ‘Sonata sopra: Sancta Maria’ was splendidly done. The cornetts and violins all displayed great agility in their demanding music while the sopranos, singing over them, produced lovely, pure lines. Following this ‘Ave maris stella’ was the occasion of some very fine sustained choral singing.

As I mentioned earlier, the soloists were drawn form the choir. I believe all were members of the Ex Cathedra Ensemble. Inexplicably, none of them were named in the programme booklet, which was all the more surprising in view of their overall excellence, but I was able to find out subsequently who the soloists were. The two sopranos, Julia Doyle and Natalie Clifton-Griffith, combined delightfully in the duet, ‘Pulchra es.’ Both of them possess light, clear voices, ideally suited to this repertoire. I did wonder whether their voices were sufficiently strong to carry right to the back of the cathedral’s long nave, However, my seat was near enough the front for me to be able to catch all the freshness and subtlety of their singing, both in this piece and elsewhere. Their singing, in this piece and on other occasions later in the work, was delightful and they managed to suggest nicely, though without over emphasis, the erotic undertones of this setting: in this movement, as in several other sections of the Vespers, the very secular world of Monteverdi’s madrigals is not at all far away.

The secular, not to say erotic, tone is even more pronounced in ‘Audi Coelum’, which was sung with barely suppressed passion by tenor Nicholas Mulroy. In a team of very good soloists I thought he was outstanding. All the others sang well but their tone was inescapably English – I don’t mean that in a critical sense; simply as a statement of fact. Mulroy, however, sang with the open-throated assurance that made him sound much closer to the Italian style. This stood him in excellent stead in ‘Audi Coelum’ and also in his solo passages in the Magnificat, where his singing was particularly exciting. He also combined most effectively with fellow tenor Thomas Hobbs in a marvellously fluent and plangent rendition of ‘Duo Seraphim’ in which Christopher Watson gave them solid support in the third tenor part. Thomas Hobbs, while not so extrovert in style as Mulroy, sang the demanding ‘Nigra Sum’ very well indeed and later on in the work he also contributed some crucial and most effective offstage echoes.

The other soloists didn’t have as much to do but countertenor Mark Chambers and basses Greg Skidmore and Marcus Farnsworth all sang their solo passages very well. The instrumentalists played superbly, the cornets in particular contributing some exciting tonal colours. The continuo players were probably the hardest working of all the performers, providing rock solid foundation to the ensembles and unfailingly sensitive support in all the solo numbers.

The Vespers concluded with an account of the Magnificat that drew together the whole ensemble and which encapsulated all the many virtues of the performance as a whole. After a sonorous opening the various short choral or solo sections were all performed with style and panache, culminating in a really exciting rendition of ‘Sicut erat in principio’ that brought the Vespers to a majestic end.

Presiding over all this was Jeffrey Skidmore and the evening must be counted as something of a personal triumph for him. He was quite obviously the master of every detail of the score and he drew from everyone involved playing and singing that was characterised by vitality, commitment and great style. His conducting was never obtrusive but it was consistently effective. His two greatest achievements, I thought, were, firstly, to convey the sweep and intensity of Monteverdi’s vision and, secondly, to direct a performance that, while faithful to period practice, was never remotely in danger of seeming dry or academic. This was a performance in which the musicians, under his inspiring leadership, communicated most effectively to the audience their sheer enjoyment of this splendid music.

The placing of this performance right in the middle of a week that has contained many large scale, rich textured choral and orchestral works was very shrewd. It provided an excellent contrast with the music of Britten Elgar et al and thereby refreshed the ears of the audience in a most effective way. The performance was very warmly received, and rightly so. This superb account of Monteverdi’s Vespers is one that I will not quickly forget.

John Quinn