Monteverdi Vespers, King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, reviewed by The Telegraph
by John Alison 6 March 2014
****

John Eliot Gardiner’s performance of the Monteverdi Vespers in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, on March 5 1964 has entered musical lore, not only for giving birth to the Monteverdi Choir but for helping to shake up period-conscious performance in this country. Fifty years on to the night, Gardiner was back at King’s for a celebratory performance of the same work, his energy seemingly undiminished: he launched it in bristling, punchy style, and Monteverdi’s tumultuous lines rolled out excitingly in this beautiful setting.

The Vespro della Beata Vergine of 1610 has remained a cornerstone of his activities, reappearing at key moments of his career. Four years ago marked the work’s 400th anniversary at the Proms, where he had first taken the piece in 1968, becoming the then youngest conductor in Proms history. He has made three recordings, and did a live BBC TV broadcast of the Vespers from St Mark’s in Venice during the Monteverdi Choir’s 25th anniversary season.

Here in Cambridge, a new-generation Monteverdi Choir – augmented in a couple of key moments by veterans of the 1964 and other early performances – was joined by the Choristers of King’s College and the English Baroque Soloists for Gardiner’s latest view of the work. Half a century ago, he was rebelling against Cambridge choral tradition, and though he has moved with the times, others have, unsurprisingly, overtaken his interpretations. There was something curiously English about this performance, with its lack of Italianate sensuality. Even the settings from the Song of Songs sounded a little chaste, and the music’s mystical heights were intermittently achieved.

Yet in such a multi-faceted work – an assimilation of all the styles Monteverdi knew – there were undoubted highlights. The tenor Krystian Adam stood out among the soloists for the subtle colours of his singing, making the pleading of Nigra sum and the echo effects of Audi coelum especially memorable. The King’s choristers threaded their supplicatory line through the wonderful Sonata sopra Sancta Maria very effectively, and the Monteverdi Choir brought dancing lightness to an invigorating Nisi Dominus.

Everyone lent tonal weight to the kaleidoscopic final Magnificat, in which all the richness of Monteverdi’s invention comes together: it was by turns ethereal and magnificent. In this melismatic, florid apotheosis it was possible to hear the musical equivalents of those eastern influences evoked in Venetian architecture: Cambridge may be a different sort of place, but here at last we came close to the spirit of Monteverdi.

Read on The Telegraph's website.