Claudio Monteverdi Vespers of 1610 – An Annual Celebration

Here's something that threatens to become a "regular event" on the New York music scene.  Last January (2010), Jolle Greenleaf had an inspiration to gather a group of early music performers together to put on what would likely be the very first 400th anniversary commemorative performance of Vespro della Beata Vergine, the music for a Marian vespers service included by composer Claudio Monteverdi in his earliest published volume of sacred music, in 1610 in Venice.  She called her project the Green Mountain Project, after a play on the composer's name, and managed to get things together in time for a performance at the beginning of the year in the appropriate NYC venue of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Times Square (46th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues), which is also the regular location these days for Miller Theare's Early Music Series. 

The event (which I did not attend or even learn about until later) was a success, a live recording was made (which I acquired at a TENET concert), and the idea of making it an "Annual Celebration" was hatched.  Solicitations for donations went out into the community of early music enthusiastics, and although not enough was raised to cover all the costs, a substantial enough sum emerged to encourage Greenleaf and her confederates to go forward with the event.  (The first performance was done on a volunteer basis.)

Last night, January 2, 2011, I was at St. Mary's for the second go.  A period ensemble and a group of talented singers was led by principal violin Scott Metcalfe from his fiddle, Avi Stein led the continuo from the organ, and 11 solo singers and a group of chanters provided the vocal end of things.  St. Mary's is a resonant space, even when packed as it was last night – every pew full, folding chairs in the aisles, overflow seating in the side rooms - and so they wisely took rather more stately tempi than you might hear in some of the numerous recordings of this work.

The sound was glorious, no way around it.  Especially in the big moments in the psalms and the final Magnificat when all the voices were massed together, it was hard to believe that such a big sound could be made by a modest-sized period ensemble, but that's what resonant church spaces are for.  On the other hand, some of Monteverdi's splendid polyphony was naturally blurred in effect.  I thought Nisi Dominus and Lauda Jerusalem suffered the most from this, occasionally melting into an undifferentiated mass of sound.  The harmonies and harmonic motion sounded right, but the individual lines could not be discerned.  No fault of the performers – that's just the way it was – and perhaps even what Monteverdi would have intended.

Actually, it's hard to know what Monteverdi would have intended with this piece, as we don't have a documented performance history for it, and as the splendid notes provided explained, there was long debate about whether the composer even intended the vespers music in this 1610 volume to be performed in a large church as a unified piece.  The title page for the manuscript says "suited for chapels or the chambers of princes," which suggests that the work was actually composed with the idea of performance in private settings rather than big public buildings, and certainly the polyphony comes through just fine under such circumstances.  Most church composers of the period composed music for vespers psalms, but few actually composed a complete cycle for performance in one service, the general approach then being to mix and match settings of appropriate psalms by different composers.  You can put together a very nice vespers service with selections from Galuppi, Vivaldi, Monteverdi, Zelenka… the list goes on and on. 

But recent scholarship now suggests that the motivic interrelationships among the pieces in Monteverdi's collection support the conclusion that it was intended to be performed together as a single liturgical work, with the appropriate interpolations for use as an actual evening prayer service.

Some years after he wrote this, Monteverdi became music director at San Marco (St. Marks) in Venice, a fine church with multiple galleries for antiphonal musical performance, and it seems likely that selections from this collection were performed there, if not the entire thing in one evening.  Monteverdi himself subsequently published more settings of the vespers psalms, in one collection published late in his career, and another assembled from his papers after his death, and one can easily construct multiple complete vespers services out of his works.  To my taste, some of the later vespers psalms settings are more entertaining, if less learned, but this early set has a sheer magnificence of concept that justifies its huge reputation.

And last night's was a most worthy performance.  I would not always want to hear the piece done this way, but I found it effective and moving, and I hope the resources can be found to continue this as an annual tradition.  I will also know better for next year — if it happens next year — to arrive much earlier.  I had made a donation to secure a reserved seat, but upon arrival at 6:40 for the 7 pm performance found that few of the reserved seats were left, and I ended up sitting rather further back than was ideal.  If this happens next year, I will be an earlier arriver!

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