Monteverdi, Vespers (1610)
During his introduction to the performance, conductor, Jeffrey Skidmore explained that most of Ex Cathedra’s previous performances in recent years of the 1610 Vespers had utilized the Ex Cathedra Consort of around ten singers, and a variety of different options for instrumental accompaniment. For this performance he explained he had chosen the larger forces of the whole choir of around fifty singers, together with Ex Cathedra Baroque Ensemble, and the glorious sounds of His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts to deliver what he amusingly termed the Hollywood version.
Indeed, there are a dizzying array of possible performing versions of this work, along with huge scholarly debate as to which movements belong where, at what pitches certain things should be played, and which instruments, voices and decorative techniques should be used. Jeffrey Skidmore is, of course, a seasoned academic in this field himself, and the joy of Ex Cathedra Birmingham – soon to celebrate their fiftieth anniversary – is that they are a supremely versatile group who can adapt to any and all situations. This reflects the early performance history of the Vespers which Monteverdi and other interpreters – famously Praetorius in Germany – adapted to suit the forces and host buildings available.
Ex Cathedra and their players gave an inspired and thrilling performance of this extraordinary work. The larger forces are (to borrow terms from the world of baroque concerto & concerto grosso) often used as tutti – or ripieno – to create moments of great impact, and then – weaving inside and outside the ripieni – a glorious variety of stunning solos, ensembles, and chamber groupings – or concertante, if you will.
Indeed the vocal soloists are superb, and it would be folly to attempt to pick out specific names: with Ex Cathedra there is ever a deliberate sense of fare shares for all and unanimity of artistic purpose. In this sense, all of the performers of this highly challenging, complex and demanding work simply have to be at the top of their game, and all performers most certainly were.
There is an almost bewildering array of musical forms at play in the Vespers, some quite ancient – such as plainsong and movements built on rather old-fashioned cantus firmus – and exotic stylings based on the relatively new-fangled invention of opera, and solo and concerted madrigal. (Monteverdi’s own ground-breaking Orfeo had been written just three years before the Vespers and, like the Vespers, was originally intended for Mantua). There are also joyous explosions of music inspired by renaissance and baroque dance forms, sometimes with a whiff of the near East, reminding us of Monteverdi’s association with Venice and the spice trail.
We sometimes forget that Monteverdi wrote this highly experimental work in 1610, a date close to the birth of what we might call the Baroque. Remember, Bach Handel and Domenico Scarlatti were not born until 1685, and all three steeped themselves in the culture and musical innovations established in Italy. It makes one realise just how astonishingly experimental, new and revolutionary the 1610 Monteverdi was, and it is a marvel the catholic church accepted this remarkable fusion of the sacred and elements one might consider profane.
Maestro Skidmore’s challenge in working with large forces was to retain cohesion, fluidity and structural unity while moving between the variety of forces and musical forms involved. This he did supremely well. The larger body of the choir were totally under his control and responded to his demands for precision and dynamic control. The many soloists were superlative, singing with great agility, authenticity, and sensitivity. The band were simply sublime.
This was a memorable and outstanding performance, wonderfully embodying the remarkable achievement of Jeffrey Skidmore and his invention of Ex Cathedra in his humble student days fifty years ago.