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Glory, in the Highest

New York
St. John the Divine Cathedral
03/06/2010 -  
Claudio Monteverdi: Vespro della Beata Vergine (Evening Prayers for the Blessed Virgin) (“Vespers of 1610”)

Mary Wilson, Kristen Watson (Sopranos), Derek Chester, Aaron Sheehan, Lawrence Jones (Tenors), Summer Thompson, Donald Wilkinson (Baritones)
Christina Day Martin (Concertmaster), Boston Baroque Chorus and Orchestra, Martin Pearlman (Music Director and Conductor)

M. Pearlman (© Eric Antoniou)

Like the Testaments, both Old and New, from which 13 sections are taken, Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespers, published in 1610, are sensual, exciting, reverent, graceful, poetic and, in the best sense of the word, hallowed. (Yet, like the miracles of the Holy Book, nobody can confirm that the Vespers were actually performed by the composer. Published in 1610, we have no record of its performance.)

Like the aggregate of every religious text, the Boston Baroque, under Martin Pearlman, in the vast spaces of St. John the Divine Cathedral, transformed those singular notes from Monteverdi into passion, miracle and auditory radiance.

Boston Baroque, founded by conductor Martin Pearlman 37 years ago, is not one of your dinky “authentic” Baroque orchestras. Claudio Monteverdi worked in palaces, cathedrals, and magnificent Venetian theaters. We may never know his exact resources, but we do know that he wanted the grandeur of the music to reflect the grandeur of his venues. Thus his Vespers needed no less than seven soloists, it needed a chorus which could be divided into as many as ten different voices. And while we don’t know his orchestra, we certainly know that he needed full consorts of strings, brass, winds, and probably harpsichord and organ.

Boston Baroque never economized. Mr. Pearlman’s chorus of 12 females and 18 males sung lustily and clearly. They divided up across the church pulpit when necessary, they ducked into the background to achieve an echoing resonance, and at times, the soloists (also part of the chorus) would go to the back of the nave to achieve their antiphonal effects.

Boston Baroque (© Julian Bullitt)

The 25-person Boston Baroque Orchestra was even more grand. The violins, violas, cellos and violone played with vivacious hard sounds, led by Christina Day Martinson, whose frequent solos (with sackbuts and cornetti) were aggressive and colorful. The sackbuts are like our trombones. But I had never heard cornetti up close. They are more like wind instruments than trumpets, the sounds resembling like the Bach C trumpets, except louder, clearer, very much like tenor choral voices.

A third element was St. John the Divine. I have heard Vespers on recordings, but nothing can approach this Cathedral, which claims to be the fourth largest in the world. The voices don’t bounce off the walls, but the resonance gives a depth and fullness to the music. And Monteverdi deserves nothing less.

This is no time to speak of Monteverdi the humanist, omnivorous reader and, for his time, democratic man. Yet one must question how this composer, who worked both for the artistic Gonzaga family in Mantua, and for the commercial theaters in Venice, was able to cut–from whole cloth–such remarkable textures, dramas and dramatic emotions. Yes, we had Gabrielli and Frescobaldi at that time, but their dances and antiphonal musics were limited. We had Masses by the thousands, but these adhered to the rules.

Later, we had Bach and Mozart, more masses, more operas. But they were following traditions, improving, perfecting. Monteverdi was creating his own pantheon of music out of a mind as advanced as Da Vinci, and as inspired as either Wolfgang or Johann Sebastian.

With Monteverdi, we need not make allowances for “early Baroque” style. We need only listen and relish.

We must ask how he was able to create–without predecessors of any kind–such a mammoth musical tapestry. Mr. Pearlman’s arrangements made that simple, for every–repeat, every–movement was different. Mr. Pearlman, in this performance, preserved the Gregorian Chant excerpts which preceded most of the movements, but otherwise he admits to using his own ideas in building the structure of the Vespers.

One could use any instruments in the one Sonata, but here he took the melodic phrases, dividing and augmenting brass and solo violins, all the while with sopranos uttering the original chant 11 times. The “Two Seraphim calling to the other” was sung at first with two tenors at either side of the church. At the end, the third comes in for a trio which could rival any late 19th Century Italian opera.

One cannot fault Monteverdi’s descriptive purposes, which later would come to fruition in his operas. In Psalm 121, he begins a jaunty walking tune for “I was glad when they said…go into the house of the Lord…”, and immediately goes into a set of far more serious variations for the more serious side of the Psalm. Nor can I forget the Nisi Dominus, “Except the Lord”, with two choirs alternating against each other in the most complex cross-rhythms. Suddenly–for Monteverdi keeps to no rules when it comes to expressing emotions–both choirs burst from war-like excitement to the most glorious “Gloria” in a minor key, ending up in an entirely different major key.

Variations? The longest section is the Magnificat. I firmly believe that the opening here, the three measures of separate soprano, separate tenor, and complete choir, is equal to the opening of Mozart’s Requiem or the B Minor Mass. But now Monteverdi sets out with each strophe to have a different variation (and complex variations as well) until the final all-embracing “As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”

The word “grandeur” has been thrown around here, but not without justification. Unlike later religious works, we have no chorus-aria-chorus-aria etc. Each section has its own character, its own mood, its divisions. (And with such volition that I can only fault Mr. Pearlman for having an intermission, which was not needed and only distracting from the ensemble power.)

The closest resemblance would be Berlioz’ Requiem, for both of these works employ original uses of instruments and voices–and both works employ vast spaces.

Mr. Pearlman has a peerless orchestra, his singers were lusty and as brilliant as the cornetti, and the chorus in a multiplicity of guises, sung not as one voice but different voices.

I read somewhere that Monteverdi specified that these Vespers be performed “not for use in a Church, but in the Palaces of Princes.” That statement for its time is remarkable in itself, but after last night’s so-emotional, so passion-driven performance, one would think that Monteverdi would be happier to have it not in churches or palaces of princes, but soaring from clouds in the firmament itself.

And while it may be apostasy, what choice to any of us have but to say, thankfully and reverently, Sit laus Martin Pearlman, Summo Boston Baroque, Spiritu Claudio Monteverdi, Tribus honor unus.

Harry Rolnick



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