Unlike many monuments of Western musical achievement – such as Bach’s Mass in B minor and Mozart’s Requiem – Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers is not an end-of-life summary of personal achievement. Instead, it is a radically complete accomplishment: Monteverdi fused old musical styles, carried to their ultimate conclusions, with new vocal techniques and stylistic innovations to create something that, in its depth, imagination and variety, was itself new and astonishing.
The thirteen movements of the Vesperae Beatae Mariae Virginis constitute the richest possible structure for the Vespers service: there are, as Keene lays out in his helpful program notes, five psalms, a hymn and a canticle. The dazzling array of musical sounds and styles – orchestral and chamber combinations of instruments; whole choruses, partial choruses, individual arias, duets and small groups of singers – is unique in the sacred music literature of the era. In this performance, the singing styles of the featured soloists and the chorus represented the very best of historic period vocal performance practices; the remarkable Dark Horse Consort, an early music ensemble consisting of thrillingly expert musicians playing such instruments as theorbos, cornettos, gamba and dulcian in addition to traditional violins, recorders and trombones, was a splendid partner to the chorus.
The opening movement, Deus in Adjutorium, established the tone for the evening: singers and instrumentalists turned the brief excerpt of Psalm 69 into a triumphant invitation to prayer and praise, concluding with a gloriously rich “Sicut erat in principio.” Over the course of the whole piece, the theological certainty and gratitude – “as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen. Alleluia” – was repeated six times; each iteration was both musically different from the one before it and reinforced in musical and emotional power by the textual repetition.
Of the twelve soloists, several were outstanding. Tenor Scott Mello’s Nigra Sum was a virtuosic, romantically charged reveling in sensuality. The soprano duet, Pulchra Es, with Molly Quinn and Melanie Russell, though it began a little shakily, finished well: as the two women’s voices came together in extremely difficult passages, the modernity of Monteverdi’s “secunda prattica,” or “newer style,” shone.
Mello was joined by tenors Lawrence Jones and Timothy Hodges for the Concerto Duo Seraphim; when all three men sang together, “et hi tres unum sunt,” the confluence of their voices, at once clear and expansive, symbolizing Isaiah’s prophecy of the Trinity, was gorgeous.
One of the Vespers’ most well-known movements – the Audi Coelum, a Venetian style call-and-echo format – provided an eloquently poignant praise of the Virgin’s miraculous beauty. Mello offered the main voice; Hodges, singing from the far back of the nave, was his echo. The sound of a man presenting, altering, reshaping and then remembering his own thoughts and feelings provided insights into all our own personal prayers and ruminations.
The work’s second to last movement – the Ave Maris Stella hymn, led by Michelle Kennedy, Linda Jones and Hodges – might have been its own complete liturgy: expressions of love for the Virgin Mary in stately and mystical alternations of orchestral passages and sung verses contrasted with the profoundly human love of the earlier Nigra sum and Pulchra es and served as a preface to the final, transcendent Magnificat, the Virgin Mother’s proclamation of joyful divine personal service and her prophecy of justice and mercy. This Magnificat, as pure a wedding of music and sacred text as any in the many liturgies of the Counter-Reformation, was sung with magisterial command and beauty.
Monteverdi’s Vespers, at once a culmination of the old and a launch into what is new, is often considered a quintessence of its era. But in fact, its significance lies not in its representation of the historical moment, but its departure from it. Monteverdi may have composed the Vespers as a show-piece-cum-job-application, hoping to use the work as a calling card to the Papal court, but the informing energy of the piece is not simply display for display’s sake but the sheer exhilaration of daring to create. Monteverdi’s particular artistic gift was that in his resolution of paradoxes, a new idea is developed and then affirmed.
Spiritual incandescence and lush sensuality join to celebrate the infinity of accesses to divine presence. Sacred texts set to secular dance rhythms bring musicians and listeners alike into the movement midst of the celestial music of the spheres. Grandeur and intimacy mimic each other, collapsing the macrocosm of God’s universe and the microcosm of the human heart into an infinite unity. Liturgy and theater converge to reimagine sacred stories.
These achievements – opposites resolved into something not blended, but actually new – aren’t cerebrally or discretely intended: they simply result from the organic coherence of unfolding artistic moments and the integrity of the musicians’ realization of the composer’s ideas.
These qualities of coherence and integrity undergirded the Voices of Ascension and Dark Horse Consort Monteverdi Vespers. Keene’s clarity of vision and direction, the musicians’ happy and deeply felt responsiveness to both Monteverdi and Keene, the bright acoustic warmth of the high church space, and the audience’s eager embrace of the music and its meanings made for an inspired and inspiring evening.
Voices of Ascension: Claudio Monteverdi’s “Vespers of 1610” (February 22, 2018)
The Church of the Ascension, Fifth Avenue and Tenth Street, in Manhattan
For more information: visit http://www.voicesofascension.org
Running time: two and a half hours including one intermission