Much has been said over the playing of early music. Scholars and musicians have debated the effect of playing on instruments of the period and also the tuning demands from the past, still resulting in various forms of backlash. How can you be true to music from centuries ago, yet still maintain a new vision for the piece?
In their 50th year, Ex Cathedra have wowed audiences with old and new, from the Renascence to new compositions, truly a wide horizon of a musical landscape. Their performances of Monteverdi’s Vespers have become events in themselves and I could hardly wait to hear them along with their Baroque Ensemble and His Majesty’s Sagbutts & Cornetts. Things began with a laugh with conductor Jeffrey Skidmore saying in the pre-show talk that he assumed they were having the concert down the bay. He lives for this type of music and gave a very insightful look at the piece and the various components of how exactly to play it. He never falters in conducting as well, a veteran of early music, who has earned his stripes tenfold.
Monteverdi’s Vespers is not one composition, but rather a collection of pieces (they all happened to be published together in 1610). Through this, they are usually all performed together perhaps with the odd movement omitted, like tonight. Few would argue that this Italian godfather of classical music was not brimming with invention and inspired ideas on harmony. This is religious music made marvellous, as is proven by the wonderful singing from the exquisite Ex Cathedra, who are the backbone of the entire evening. Admittedly, this piece being over 400 years old, it is an acquired taste, though I think most would be won over by the boldness of its execution. I do marvel at the complexities of Bach and Handel, so it can be quite refreshing to hear a music that is stripped back.
There are moments of theatre here, as the singers move around the stage complementing solos or going just off stage an extra level of listening pleasure. The instrumentalists also getting sublime moments with the choir, after bouts of patience. The sagbutts and cornetts are the real deal, a trip back in time to the bizarre sound world, mingling of brass and woodwind to great effect in the overall orchestration. Some of the duets for the singers had striking microtones, evoking the east, a large influence on Venice and Italy at the time. Other moments are moving in a humble way with the solos singers just having moments with the theorbo (a large plucked string instrument) and the miniature organ. Clever use of the cantus firmus is also heard in intervals throughout the music and makes for a great effect for hungry ears. It all amounted to experiencing a milestone in music, presented with much grace and passion.