July 2018: Claudio Monteverdi Vespers 1610

EFCIt was with a sense of excited anticipation that I sat in a very warm Exeter Cathedral awaiting the start of one of the greatest choral works ever written, confident that Nigel Perrin and the EFC would deliver a credible performance.

I was not disappointed! The performance was stunning; bright, energetic choral singing, crystal clear soloists blending well together with a dynamic instrumental group.

I have heard several performances of Monteverdi Vespers, both amateur and professional, but none to compare with the outstanding, brilliant and dynamic rendition we enjoyed at Exeter Cathedral.

‘Brilliance’ applied to the singing as well. The music requires clear and lively voices and this was achieved throughout, by the soloists and both choirs. The EFC performed with great energy and enthusiasm, but could switch to clear, quiet melody as required. Pitch and diction were superb.

Monteverdi’s Vespers of the Blessed Virgin comprises Responses and Psalms from the liturgy of 'Vespers' (the Catholic office of Evening Prayer), interspersed with motets (other texts set to music), and concluding with a setting of Magnificat. The motets are generally quieter and more contemplative, and mostly sung by the seven soloists. There is also Sancta Maria. The Sancta Maria is an extended, largely instrumental section where a simple theme is taken and developed, over which the children’s choir sings what seems to be a simple theme, but which has complex subtleties in the rhythm.

Schola Exe (the Devon County Senior Choir for girls, and boys with unchanged voices, from age 13) sang with the choir for some items, provided the distant echo for others, but had a prominent role in Sancta Maria and Magnificat.

The soloists were excellent. So often one attends a concert where the soloists, though good on their own, have never worked together and this is evident. In a work requiring seven soloists, it worked extremely well to use a vocal ensemble, VOCES8, as the soloists. Not only was the quality of their voices in keeping with the style of the music, the way their voices blended together was indicative of singers who are used to working together.

The English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble provided a lively and exciting instrumental contribution. I cannot use the term ‘accompaniment’ as it is not. The instrumental part is of equal importance to the choral, providing vigorous and energetic counter melodies and cross-rhythms to the vocal parts. About fifty years prior to the publication of Vespers The Council of Trent had outlawed the contrapuntal singing of words in the liturgy - where different voices were singing different words at the same time – as this was deemed to make the liturgy incomprehensible. So composers of church music made the choirs sing the same words at the same time to comply, but added interest both by adding fiendishly complex instrumental parts, and by adding lengthy melodies on a single word. Both techniques are used extensively in Vespers.

Exeter Cathedral lacks the vastness of St Mark’s in Venice, for which the music was composed, but Nigel Perrin’s imaginative use of the space enhanced the music. Some of the motets were sung by soloists, accompanied by the Theorbo, from the West End of the Cathedral, where in others echo voices came from somewhere well behind the choir.

From the solo plainsong introduction, sung from the pulpit, to the final Amen of the Magnificat, the audience enjoyed an amazing and exhilarating performance.

Congratulations to Nigel Perrin and the Exeter Festival Chorus, with VOCES8, Schola Exe and the English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble for another memorable concert.

Colin Ashby
16 July 2018