North East Post
A Voice of the Free Press
Steve Whitaker
Literary Editor
1:00 AM 7th November 2023

Monteverdi's Vespers Of 1610 At Huddersfield Town Hall

Image by Helenne Jordan
Image by Helenne Jordan
As Gregory Batsleer reminded us before a thrilling performance of the Vespers of 1610, this was the first occasion on which Monteverdi’s masterwork had ever been attempted by Huddersfield Choral Society. That the conductor’s comment was a statement of objective fact, rather than a precautionary exercise in damage limitation, says much about Batsleer’s assured hand and intuitive feel for the moment. And if this work of the late Renaissance long precedes the High Baroque oratorios of which the HCS are leading exponents, then the stylistic transition, at Huddersfield Town Hall on a wet and miserable November evening, couldn’t have been more ably effected.

The choir, bolstered by the internationally renowned ensemble of His Majesty’s Sagbutts and Cornetts, an orchestra of virtuosi musicians using contemporary instruments and assembled under the generic banner of the Huddersfield Baroque Collective, and a small but tight group of singers from the Society’s Youth Choir, made up a battalion of real authority and energy. For there were several moments of discernible brilliance on display that shook the audience into a final ovation whose sincerity was a precise measure of the general astonishment, not least as a counterpoint to expectation.

Sung in Latin, the performance included frequent dynamic interludes that worked to great dramatic effect as platforms for the individual skills of the six choral soloists. Whilst the ritornelli employed throughout the performance’s formal sections built this paean to devotion into a metaphysical landscape of redemption by a process of layering and anticipation, the archly contrasting quieter moments lent the unfolding narrative an introspective sense, foregrounding the personal nature of the spiritual relationship. If the sudden shifts of gear, and the interweave of solo voices and choir imitate an emotional wrangling between God, Mary and musical acolytes, then Monteverdi’s device was practiced with uncommon focus in the resonant space of the Town Hall’s auditorium.

Image by Helenne Jordan
Image by Helenne Jordan
The echo of repetition in the Audi Cœlum - a diminution of the Latin word structure but a figurative enhancement of meaning – was beautifully performed by the choir. The exchange of massed voices in what must be a profoundly complex piece to sing, was seamlessly rendered in overlap, concealing the technical precocity of musical process behind a seductive wall of emotion. The Audi gave the two highly experienced solo Tenors – Tom Kelly and Christopher Fitzgerald – a platform for a subtle reading of the ‘call and response’ which conferred an interstitial solemnity on the wider vigour of the performance. Both sang with controlled authority throughout the piece, a complement to the range of hugely experienced Baritone, Oskar McCarthy and the anchoring surety of the Bass, Ben McKee. Separated from the male soloists by the orchestra, the Soprano, Ana Beard-Fernandez and the Mezzo, Kate Symonds-Joy, handled the coloratura intricacies of the vocal parts with great sensitivity and clarity, their voices at no point overwhelmed by either orchestra or choir.

Taut and impeccable throughout, the combined orchestras gave both backbone to the ocean of voices behind, and dazzling individual veracity in delivery. The mournful echo of an offstage violin, and elsewhere the exquisite delicacy of the cornett players, foregrounded the importance of studied ornamentation to Monteverdi’s work, and will remain long in the memory.

As will the girls of the Choral Society’s Youth Choir, whose terrific rendering of the Sonata Sopra Santa Maria added colour and vibrancy to a refulgent tableau. But it was the Magnificat - where the combined forces of the Vespers array in something approaching Handelian glory – that shook the Town Hall’s rococo plasterwork. A resounding conclusion to a work of intricacy, convolution and sustained spiritual fervour, nothing quite prepared even the confirmed Monteverdi enthusiast for the emotive energy of the closing Gloria patri and the Sicut erat in principio.

A magnificent evening, thanks in no small part to the transformative chemistry uniting choir and conductor.

The Vespers of 1610 was performed at Huddersfield Town Hall on Saturday 4th November.

Huddersfield Choral Society, conductor Gregory Batsleer
His Majesty's Sagbutt's and Cornetts
Huddersfield Baroque Collective

HCS Voices & HCS Youth Choirs
Ana Beard-Fernandez - Soprano
Kate Symonds-Joy - Mezzo-Soprano
Christopher Fitzgerald - Tenor
Thomas Kelly - Tenor
Oskar McCarthy - Baritone
Ben McKee - Bass

Further information on HCS click here