The Amen of the Magnificat died away, the rapt audience remained completely still and conductor Erin Helyard paused a moment before bowing. Not to us, but to the musicians and by association to Monteverdi. It was a profoundly moving gesture towards a marvellous group of singers and players who had given a performance that will live long in the memory – led, of course, by the protean Helyard.

Pinchgut Opera’s Vespers. Photograph © Lando Rossi

Helyard presents the Vespers with one voice to a part, entrusting the work to just eight singers and an instrumental ensemble of 14, including himself on chamber organ. In line with current thinking on historical performance, it results in a transporting level of communion. Anyone used to the majesty of a large-forces Vespers will find this approach intriguing and intensely satisfying. With the singers – two sopranos, two altos, two tenors and two basses – standing in a line behind the players, the separate voices can be heard weaving between and around each other’s and one can see the performers’ exchanged glances as they negotiate the score’s complexities. The personal and the intimate are here privileged over what can be the admittedly stunning effect of a huge wall of sound.

It’s hard to overestimate Monteverdi’s standing as one of the greats of all time. He straddled the worlds of Renaissance and Baroque music and was equally at home with secular, sacred and dramatic music (his opera Orfeo was written in 1607). In his Vespro della Beate Vergine of 1610 these streams converge: “Christianity presented as theatre” as The New York Times described it in 2008. The sequence of psalms, motets, a hymn, sonata and Magnificat will rarely be heard by a contemporary audience performed in honour of Christ’s mother on a special feast day. Is that why Pinchgut doesn’t feature the Blessed Virgin in the snappy title of its concert? No matter. In this concert hall setting the Vespers still deliver what we might call a religious experience, offering music and performance of numinous beauty. A spiritual encounter, perhaps, although one with decidedly worldly aspects.

It’s worth putting down the full text of the motet Nigra Sum, which follows the psalm Dixit Dominus, a paean to God’s might and wrath:

I am a black but comely daughter of Jerusalem.

Therefore the king hath delighted in me
and brought me to his chamber and said to me:

Arise, my love, and come.
For the winter is passed, the rain is over and gone;

Flowers have appeared in our land, the time of pruning is at hand.

It sizzles on the page; in performance it is astonishingly sensual as is Pulchra Es, its text also taken from the Song of Songs. Louis Hurley’s honeyed tenor caressed every word of Nigra Sum and sopranos Chloe Lankshear and Anna Sandström – Lankshear bright and clear; Sandström creamily voluptuous of tone – intertwined ethereally.

Monteverdi’s theatrical instincts charge all the motets. The outstanding basses David Greco and Andrew O’Connor combined with Hurley for the ravishing Duo Seraphim, which brings in the third voice (O’Connor) after the first two in a brilliant dramatic touch. Tenor Richard Butler sang Audi Coelum with a dark gold, penetrating, prayerful tone while Hurley, who had quietly left the stage, was heard as an echoing voice from afar.

It was a delight to hear the very different but complementary qualities of each singer in music asking for great flexibility and virtuosity. Mezzo Anna Fraser and countertenor Max Riebl had fewer opportunities to shine individually but were integral to the group’s collective impact in the psalms and particularly the Magnificat a 7, almost a separate concert in itself.

Pinchgut Opera’s Vespers. Photograph © Lando Rossi

The Orchestra of the Antipodes was no less enticing. As with the singers, the small number of players meant a high degree of transparency. The warm timbre of instruments including lirone, theorbo, baroque triple harp and trombone-like sackbuts is particularly suited to supporting the human voice in close consort and to creating a deeply appealing aural glow.

Pinchgut usually devotes its energies to music that is far less well-known than the Vespers, but then the Vespers is also a work that isn’t on high rotation in Australia. It recommends itself without reservation. It also has a terrific back-story.

Dip into any account of Monteverdi’s life and you are sure to encounter the “job interview”. Monteverdi had been working at the court of Mantua and was unhappy; indeed he was let go in 1612. He aspired to Rome, perhaps, as the Vespers were dedicated to Pope Paul V, but the position of maestro di cappella came up at St Mark’s in Venice in 1613 and Monteverdi was hired.

As Lindsay Kemp wrote in Gramophone in 2015, the Vespers were “a calculated summation of his skill as a writer of sacred music at a time when he most needed to advertise it”. As part of his audition in Venice, he had to provide music for the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin, which falls on August 15. On August 19 he was unanimously appointed by the Procurators of St Mark’s to the position, based on his works “which are found in print and those which today their most illustrious lordships have chosen to hear … in the church of St Mark’s with its musicians”.

John Eliot Gardiner writes in the introduction to his 1989 recording of the Vespers that this citation is not proof the Vespers were heard that day, but they were certainly in print. Whatever the detail, it is widely thought that the Vespers sealed the deal for Monteverdi.

The Procurators, Eliot Gardiner discovered, were “completely satisfied”.

Vespers is repeated at City Recital Hall on 21 March at 5pm and at Melbourne Recital Centre on 25 March. Vespers will also be available as a digital concert via Pinchgut at Home for $30 from 1 April – 2 May

Supported by the City of Sydney

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