Bach Musica’s year-end concert is a performance of a less well-known but equally impressive alternative to Handel’s Messiah, writes RICHARD BETTS.
It’s odd how we’ve come to expect Handel’s Messiah each Christmas. The work makes more sense at Easter, but nonetheless, we’ll hear it all around the country this December, notably in performances by the NZSO and Auckland Choral. The national orchestra has assembled a quartet of top soloists as well as our most exciting young conductor, Gemma New, while Auckland Choral is performing its annual show for the 102nd year in a row.
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There’s a comfort to these regular concerts, but for those wanting music of equal stature yet significantly less familiarity (and don’t require it to be Christmas-specific), there’s Bach Musica’s year-end concert, a rare performance of Vespro della Beata Vergine, published in 1610 by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-ish to 1643).
Monteverdi is a giant, as important in his way as Beethoven, but one we hear too infrequently in New Zealand. Like Beethoven 200 years later, he was the composer who shepherded music between two eras, and the Vespers is thus both the last great sacred work of the Renaissance and the first sacred masterpiece of the Baroque.
You can hear this straddling of worlds in the music. It incorporates elements of the past, such as Gregorian chant, but in its use of complex rhythms and its combination of voices and instruments the Vespers embraces innovations of the day, many of which Monteverdi helped popularise (it’s worth noting that Monteverdi was a pioneer in the field of opera, and while he didn’t write the first one, he did write the first one that was any good, L’Orfeo, in 1607).
Like much to do with early music, where time has blurred facts and birthed half-truths, there are necessarily a lot of perhapses and maybes when it comes to the Vespers. Monteverdi may not, for example, have expected the Vespers to be performed in one sitting. The work’s 13 movements, running to 80 or 90 minutes, might have been a pick ’n’ mix assortment to dip into.
And no one’s entirely sure but it’s likely the Vespers was a musical CV. Monteverdi, who was employed at the time by the Duke of Mantua, dedicated the work to Pope Paul V and travelled to Rome personally, manuscript in hand, possibly with the hope of securing a job. The Vatican took the composition – a copy is still held in the library there – but not the composer, whose next role was as maestro di capella at San Marco basilica in Venice.
What we do know is that the Vespers is a masterpiece of melody, harmony and texture, arguably the most impressive music written to that point. And if it lacks the music-as-algebra sophistication of Bach’s Passions or the dramatic punch of Handel’s oratorios, for moments of sheer beauty, Monteverdi matches and occasionally surpasses both.
Given the quality of the compositions, it’s remarkable Monteverdi’s music fell from the repertoire after his death in 1643 until the end of the 19th century. The Vespers is now well and truly re-established, but so seldom performed that if you can possibly make it, you should try to catch Bach Musica’s 6 December Auckland concert, which features several of our leading singers in solo roles, including soprano Jayne Tankersley, alto Kate Spence, Andrew Grenon (tenor) and, most excitingly, soprano Amelia Berry, who’s home from London.