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MONTEVERDI VESPERS OF 1610

Ensemble Gombert

Melbourne Recital Centre

Monday February 13

john-odonnell

                                                               John O’Donnell      

Fitting the Vespers into the smaller of the Recital Centre’s spaces made for a pretty solid challenge.   John O’Donnell used a version of the score that I’ve not heard before which does without the rich orchestral fabric of the full-scale version, reducing all Monteverdi’s support potential to a chamber organ, from which the body’s founder directed his 22-strong choir.   In the Salon, we were all well-involved with the performance and quite a few faces that present as mere blips in the distance at Xavier College Chapel – the Gomberts’ usual theatre of action – took on added interest; not simply for being distinctive but also for the physical exertion involved in their labour, here seen at close range.

As you’d expect, the advantages of proximity for Monday night’s audience were balanced by some benefits for the singers.  Primarily, the pressure involved in making the five psalms’ linear and chordal interplay resonate was alleviated by the fact that projection could be achieved with less strain than is required in a large church space.  Yes, you lost an initial surge of excitement which bursts out at the opening to the full version where the composer revisits his Orfeo prelude with a massive instrumental array (as most performances present it) contesting with the choral forces.  But every note carried and made its mark, and the choral fabric impressed for its lucidity: lines that usually get lost in the mesh could be discerned, even in pages like the 10-part Nisi Dominus.

In general, this performance succeeded most fully in the large-frame movements where all present were involved; the early Dixit Dominus and Laudate pueri impressed for the vivid power of the dozen female voices while the tenor thread in Lauda Jerusalem came over with a quietly resonant consistency, although the concluding doxology to this movement turned out to be the performance highlight for me, particularly striking for the precision of the off-beat entries during the last Amen pages.

The last time I heard this work, at the opening to the 2014 Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields Festival, conductor Gary Ekkel used soloists of some stature for the motet/concerto movements that interleave the psalms of these vespers.  O’Donnell followed his usual practice of giving all solo lines to his Gombert members; although the choir was slightly expanded in size for this occasion, as far as I could tell everyone took part in the choral movements.

Much of the night’s weight fell on tenor Tim van Nooten who expounded the solo Nigra sum, shared the Duo Seraphim with Vaughan McAlley (and, later, with Peter Campbell) and took on the main burden of Audi coelum.  His voice is hard to characterise: clean and carrying, not aggressive in attack, holding something of a countertenor’s detachment but without any stridency.  The only noticeable problem – and that appeared mainly in his early solos – was a running-out of breath, so that the endings of certain phrases verged on the dangerously tenuous.

Carol Veldhoven, one of the Gombert veterans, worked impressively with Katherine Lieschke in the Pulchra es motet, and with commendable security in the concluding Magnificat a 6 where the same pair made a fair fist of Monteverdi’s echo effects.  The bass soloist in the Laetatus sum psalm was competent and professional, but I couldn’t recognize him, even at close quarters.

Still, the individual singers gave the impression of being under stress during their moments of exposure; nothing came easy and, although correctly dutiful for the most part, they were at their most effective when moving back to reinforce the general population.

In this version, as well as missing the initial splendour of dotted-rhythm energy, you also do without the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria which comes close to the end and is one of the full work’s least effective movements despite (because of?) its simplicity.  And the concluding Magnificat on this night was negotiated rapidly – the second of the two available, I believe.   Yet the reading made for a satisfying and involving experience, drawing you in by the sheer grittiness of music-making being carried out within arm’s reach.  You might have reservations about the soloists’ assurance but this choir in full flight has a vehemence and informed impulse that engrosses and can often enthral.