Yesterday morning I saw a piece in the newspaper about a rare opportunity to hear Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610 performed by Apollo's Fire (The Cleveland Baroque Orchestra), conducted by founder Jeannette Sorrell. I got online right away, reserved two tickets up close, and looked forward to the evening all day.
I bought my first of two recordings of Monteverdi's Vespers back in grad school, 1968 or so. I'd read a rave review in the defunct magazine, High Fidelity and Stereo Review, and then saw the records on sale in my favorite cubbyhole at Penn State, Nittany News. The Nikolaus Harnoncourt recording captured the flashy, intricate lines in a "perfect" acoustic that sounded like a church but not like a train station.
Monteverdi didn't title his work "Vespers of 1610." These were "Vespers to the Blessed Virgin." The program liner notes last night informed us that solid scholarship has established that Monteverdi wrote these Vespers most likely for the wedding of the son of his patron, the Duke of Mantua, in 1608. They were later published in Venice, though they were certainly not written with the acoustics of St. Mark's Cathedral in mind. Monteverdi didn't work there until 1613.
Enough of scholarship, on to the making of music. Jeannette Sorrell is a most impressive conductor. She gave us a vibrant, sensual, fresh, vigorous, dramatic, languid, even playful experience of this piece. I was moved toward a gush of tears twice in the first couple of minutes.
I only wish this rare opportunity had been paired with a suitable acoustic. The Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis is a space more like a gigantic train station than a place to hear musical details. The space is so vast, the famed cathedral of St. Marks in Venice could be tucked inside it! The reverberation in this space suffuses intricate musical detail in a glowing Venetian mist. Hearing Monteverdi in there is like seeing great paintings through waxed paper. We got all the benefits of supremely graceful pacing and phrasing, but few of the benefits of Monteverdi's bravura writing.
It's too bad that the Cathedral Concerts have to take place in that cathedral.