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Seen and Heard Prom Review


PROM 61: Monteverdi, ‘Vespers’ (1610) The King’s Consort, dir. Robert King: Soloists, Choir of the King’s Consort, Royal Albert Hall, Tuesday August 31st 2004 (ME)


Not so much ‘Stile Concitato,’ rather more perhaps ‘Stile non Concitato,’ or if that’s weak Italian then perhaps ‘temperato’ will suffice. This performance of the ‘Vespers’ would be most accurately characterized with the term Monteverdi chose for music of humility and reticence rather than the celebrated phrase he used for the’ new’ music of passion and excitement, since the prevailing mood throughout was pleasant and bland rather than exciting. Of course, ‘Early Music’ causes argument almost like no other: as we left the auditorium we ran into two ebullient gentlemen, one of whom was fulminating ‘It was all so totally WRONG! NOTHING was right!’ whereupon his companion smoothly remarked ‘Well you don’t need to tell ME that! TOTALLY wrong!’ I wouldn’t go quite so far, but the performance certainly was dull where it should have been thrilling.


You either like the Oxbridge choral sound, or you don’t, and here we had an evening of it: exquisitely shaped, perfect in diction, thoroughly drilled, informed by all the right scholarship - and bearing all the hallmarks of that so very smug and satisfied style which most exactly characterizes it, both in terms of choir and soloists. The choir’s ‘Domine ad adiuvandum me festina’ was certainly loud enough but hardly the urgent plea which might be expected – it sounded more like ‘Do pop in for tea if you’re passing this way, Lord’ than a fervent prayer. When the work is presented like this (and we have no evidence to suggest that that was how the composer intended it to be heard) it’s understandable if some parts sound less dramatic than others – no one, performer or audience member, can be expected to maintain a high pitch of passion throughout, but this uniform calmness and positively comfortable assertion was prevalent throughout.


‘Nigra sum’ is the first real ‘solo’ in the work (or more accurately, collection) and it is, or should be, a virtuoso display of the singer’s art, not only in terms of technical assurance but of expressive quality. James Gilchrist sang it quite forcefully but in far too genteel a manner: the line inviting the beloved to arise and come away might as well have been an invitation to apply sun cream, and the wonderfully evocative ‘Flores apparuerunt in terra nostra,’ which should be every bit as forceful as, say, ‘Der Mai ist kommen, der Winter ist aus’ was merely attractive. The same went for ’Laudate Pueri’ and ‘Pulchra es’ with the latter much affected by divergent vocal styles: the ubiquitous Carolyn Sampson now producing a very firm, rounded, operatic tone whereas Prom debutant Rebecca Outram has a sharp, unyielding, piercing tone – certainly not ‘Suavis.’


The best performances came in ‘Duo Seraphim’ and ‘Audi coelum’ where the placing of the singers gave pointed effect to the ‘echo’ music: although the singing was still ‘hardly passionate,’ Charles Daniels and James Gilchrist did breathe a little more life into their phrases here, and that glossy choral sound is at least appropriate for ‘Benedicta es.’ I found it odd that the wonderful ‘Sonata sopra Sancta Maria’ was given to a female chorus as opposed to a more slender force, but of course this is a matter of taste.


A packed house received the work with rapture, which is wonderful considering it is not exactly the most accessible of pieces, but it seemed a pity that the performance lacked so much in terms of sheer verve. If you like your Monteverdi calm cool and collected, then you would have been happy, and you will be with the forthcoming recording: for me, this composer deserves singing and playing to match his own level of daring, of passion and of originality, and I find that on the recording by the Monteverdi Choir and the Concentus Musicus, directed by Jürgen Jürgens with Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Teldec 4509921752) - just listen to Nigel Rogers in ‘Nigra sum:’not just breathtaking in terms of virtuosity but fascinating in interpretation of language, and full of the kind of living, breathing joy in the score which, to my ears, was so absent from this Prom performance.



Melanie Eskenazi

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