Collegium Vocale Gent at the Barbican review *****

Collegium Vocale Gent, Philippe Herreweghe (conductor), Dorothee Mields (soprano), Hanna Blazikova (soprano), Alex Potter (countertenor), Thomas Hobbs (tenor), Krešimir Stražanac (bass)

Barbican Hall, 14th June 2019

It’s Bach. It’s the B Minor Mass. So of course it is beautiful. But it can be a bit, well, “bitty”. After all the old boy did cobble it together at the end of his life from a few of his greatest hits, probably to impress the big-wigs in Leipzig. Not that you would notice. It is still one of the most sublime works of art ever created. And you don’t need a religious bone in your body to understand that.

So the real pleasure on this special evening was hearing the Collegium Vocale Gent under Philippe Herrewghe deliver a performance that articulated the work as a whole, as well as the individual parts. Crucial given they played 2 hours straight through, (which meant it was too long for any liturgical purpose). PH and the CVG have been perfecting their HIP interpretation of the work for decades. I doubt there is anyone who understands the work better. That means the standard HIP set up of a chorus of just 18 including our 5 soloists who step out, (of the chorus, not with each other), and a band of 24, with strings, timpani, a couple of flutes and bassoons, 3 oboes and 3 trumpets and a horn. And a violone (a kind of viol double bass) to set alongside the dinky organ to augment the continuo. Which means three or four singers to each SATB part expanding to two per part in the Sanctus.

There was nothing forced about the performance. The chorus, soloists and band have no interest in trying to blow the bloody doors off which created a purity of tone that, in the high points, the Kyrie, the Sanctus, Bennedictus ossana, was simply magical. And PH had no interest in forcing the pace, trusting in JSB’s rhythmic bounce and spare lines to make the point. There was no vibrato so that even in the Barbican cavern thee was absolute clarity of tone and Latin text. If you want a great slab of swirling sound then this isn’t the B minor for you. But if you want rhetoric and comprehension then this is the way forward for you. Though don’t for one minute think these 18 voices can’t raise the roof when required.

No doubt a fair few talents have come and gone since the CVG was founded in 1970. But PH has been at the helm throughout. Which shows. No baton. Level with the band. More directing the traffic than keeping the beat, secure in the knowledge that everyone on the stage knows what they are doing. There was a sense that we in the seats were intruding on some sort of private devotion. The two sopranos were perfectly matched, similar in tone, most beautifully in the Christe eleison. Yet the most sublime moments came when individual voices were matched by individual instruments. Violin and soprano in Laudamus te, soprano, tenor and flute in Domine Deus, counter-tenor and oboe d’amore in Qui sedes and bass and horn in the Quoniam.

I loved it. And MSBD, who had already put in a hard days’ work unlike the layabout Tourist, maybe even more judging by the rapturous grin. he sported throughout.

Monteverdi Vespers at the Barbican Hall review *****

orchestra

The Academy of Ancient Music, Choir of the AAM, Robert Howarth, Louise Alder, Rowan Pierce, Thomas Hobbs, Charles Daniels

Barbican Hall, 23rd June 2017

It was the Academy of Ancient Music and its choir performing Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers. It was bound to get 5 stars.

If you have spent your life blissfully unaware of Monteverdi’s Vespers then I implore you to take a listen. I can see that a few people have accidentally stumbled upon this blog, normally when looking for reviews of plays that proper critics and bloggers haven’t bothered to see. So they had no choice but to read my nonsense. If you are one of these people and you happen to open this post by mistake, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE find a way to listen to the Vespers of 1610.

I don’t care what bag of music you are into. I don’t care if you think classical music is a load of nonsense. This is different. I promise. It does go on a bit I admit. Hour and a half. But it is broken up it to lots of different chunks. And it is divine. In both the sacred and secular sense.

Now if you or I wanted a new job we would ask around. Probably scan the press, specialist and general. Contact an agency or if you are an important sort, tap a headhunter. You would dust off the CV and hawk it around. Not our Claudio though. When he wanted to escape from his overbearing employer the Duke of Mantua, feeling overworked and under-appreciated, he wrote this and sent it off to the movers and shakers in the rest of Italy (though it wasn’t Italy then of course) with a particular eye on a job with the cashed up Pope. He was well known largely for his madrigals, where he was the bees knees, the Ed Sheeran of his day. But he wanted a more prestigious position where he could churn out more weighty stuff – like what happens to all talented pop stars when they “want to be taken seriously”. In the end he got the top gig at St Mark’s in Venice.

This explains why Monteverdi mixed up the various styles of church music, some taken from tunes he had already written, to create this Vespers. The title says it all: “To the Most Holy Virgin: a Mass for four voices, for Church chorus, and Vespers to be sung by several voices, with a few sacred songs”. All of the elements of the standard Catholic Vespers are there but interspersed with other elements which make for a masterly mash-up. The piece is unique for its time in the way it looks back to the Renaissance with plainchant melodies anchoring the structures in the five psalms, the hymn (Ave maris stella) and the choruses of the Magnificat, that make up the Vespers. Yet it also looks forward into the Baroque of Bach, and even some proto-Classical homophony, in the four “concertos” and sonata which are more “secular” in sound despite still praising the Virgin Mary to the hilt. All of the contrasting textures, both for voices and instruments, also show why Monteverdi effectively invented opera.

The performance by the AAM and chorus under the guiding hand of Robert Howarth at the harpsichord was excellent I think. Of the soloists we, (BUD wasn’t going to be allowed to miss this one), were most taken with Thomas Hobbes (tenor) and Louise Alder (soprano) but it almost seems churlish to say so. The twenty strong choir was on top form and the AAM (which is made up of some of the finest period music interpreters anyone) was magnificent.

Now you will find smartarses who reject this way of performing the Vespers – several voices to a part, two tenors and two sopranos, step out soloists, “echo’ effects meaning soloists whizzing around the building and so on – but trust me, they can safely be ignored. A perfect Vespers might need a Cathedral and candlelight rather than the Barbican stage but the music is just so amazing that I strongly recommend that you just add this to your bucket list and get on with ticking off. I cast iron guarantee you won’t regret it.