Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Concert review - Anton Bruckner Choir - Monteverdi: Vespers

The concert took place on Saturday evening at 7.30 pm (not 7pm as previously noted) in the church of St Clement Danes, London. The church is situated in the middle of the Strand, but the traffic noise wasn't too obtrusive. It's a Wren church, built in 1682, damaged during the Second World War, and later restored. It serves as the Central Church of the RAF, and there are many memorials, particularly in the crypt, to the RAF dead. The church has been beautifully restored - lots of dark wood and intricate carving, bright gilding, and accented with a bright turquoise blue colour. I guess that the stained glass windows would look beautiful during the day, though they weren't visible during the concert. There was a good acoustic, too: bright without being reverberent.

The concert consisted only of the Vespers by Monteverdi, one of the largest and grandest Renaissance works. It was published in Venice, although Monteverdi was working in Mantua at the time. It has been conjectured that he wrote it as a kind of audition piece for the basilica of St Mark's, and he was certainly made choirmaster there three years later. The Wikipedia link above gives much more information about the structure of the work which I'm
not going to repeat here.

The performers were:
Conductor: Christopher Dawe
Soloists: Lynton Atkinson (tenor), Andrew Tortise (tenor); Ruth Beckmann (soprano), Karen Gilbert (soprano); Frank Taylor (tenor); Richard Hubbard (baritone), Marcus Marr (baritone); Charisse Amand (mezzo-soprano), Claire Bennie (contralto).
Monteverdi Ensemble (on authentic instruments)
Anton Bruckner Choir

The Vespers began with Deus in adiutorium meum (O God make speed to save us), which is a simple unison choral part accompanying solo tenor. The choral parts I found a little dull, but then that was Monteverdi's fault, not the choir's. The next movement, Dixit Dominus, was much more exciting, chorally, with mixed choral parts, tenor and bass soloists, followed by a beautifully sung Nigra sum, by the two tenors.

Laudate pueri was another choral psalm, well sung by the choir and sympathetically accompanied by the ensemble. It was followed by the motet Pulchra es, sung by the two soprano soloists: this was beautiful, and the two voices were well matched and complementary. The seventh movement, Duo seraphim, was begun by the two tenor soloists, and then joined by the third, singing from the pulpit: three very different voices, the amateur matching the professionals. Audi coelum, the ninth movement placed the two tenors at different ends of the church, with Atkinson singing the responses from the back, which was a good effect, particularly as the hidden voice gave the impression of otherworldliness.

Sonata sopra Sancti Maria again suffered, like the first movement, from being sung in unison voice parts. However, the lines were well sung, and there was some interest in seeing the variation Monteverdi created in setting the same words, and in the instrumental parts. The next movement, Ave maris stella, was sung partly by the choir, and partly by women soloists from it, each taking a verse. All the soloists were good, so it seems invidious to pick out any one of them, but I particularly liked Claire Bennie's voice - a lovely rich contralto sound.

Lastly there was sung the Magnificat, the highlight and finale of the work. The two tenors almost seemed to be doing "Anything you can do, I can do better", from either end of the church, augmented later by the choir.

The only problem during the performance was the long hiatus enforced partway through the Magnificat, because the ring of bells attempting to play "Oranges and Lemons" with mighty thuds and whirrs of clockwork and hammers was rather distracting. Once they had finished, the singing resumed, not the worse for the interval. One of the sackbut players could have been better, but didn't spoil the overall performance.

It's the first time I'd listened to the Vespers, and have to conclude that it's a most magnificent piece, almost operatic in its variation and setting. The concert was excellent, and was much enjoyed by a large audience.



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