Conducted by the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s honorary conductor Maestro Andrew Parrott, the orchestra opened its 29th season with the first complete Israeli performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s “Vespro della Beata Vergine”. 

This writer attended the performance on October 31st 2017 in the Zucker Hall, Tel Aviv’s recently-opened chamber music venue, located in the building of the Bronfman Auditorium. Visiting artists taking part in the festive event included tenor Rodrigo del Pozo (Chile), violist/tenor Simon Lillystone (UK), bass Nerijus Misevičius (Lithuania), cornett players Alma Nir-Meyer (Israel) and Elisabeth Opsahl (Norway) and sackbut players Tin Cugelj (Croatia), James Wigfull (UK) and Fabio de Cataldo (Italy). Israeli solo- and ensemble singers were alto Avital Dery, tenors Doron Florentin, Hillel Sherman and Ofri Gross, baritone Guy Pelc and bass Yoav Meir Weiss. JBO founder and music director Prof. David Shemer joined his JBO players on organ.

In his concert notes, David Shemer mentions the different styles incorporated into Monteverdi’s “Vespers”,. He poses the question of whether the work is “a collection of separately written pieces” or to be performed as one work. To the set Vespers format, Monteverdi adds pieces for smaller ensembles to texts from “Song of Songs” and from anonymous early Christian poets. What emerges from the composer’s pen is a work both intimate and grand, prayerful and dramatic, exalted and sensual. As is well known to Baroque choral music aficionados today, Andrew Parrott believes that these works were performed with few singers and not massed choirs. In addition to the 13 players, the JBO performance of the “Vespers” featured eleven singers, all in all.

From the very opening statements of the work’s buoyant, exuberant tutti opening, Parrott had the audience totally captivated and following him all the way through the work’s abundance of varied combinations and constellations. How inspiring it was to hear the timbres of each instrument and each individual voice, the minute details of each vocal line and of the singers’ crystal-clear diction (all of which might be lost in the massed choir setting). The performance’s clarity was also due to the fact that many of the vocal solos, duets and trios were accompanied by small ensembles, these, more often than not, comprising just organ (David Shemer) and theorbos (Ophira Zakai, Eliav Lavi). The first of these was tenor Doron Florentin’s musical, strategic and beguiling singing of “Nigra sum” (“I am black, but comely”, Song of Songs), his sonorous timbre embracing the hall. In “Pulcha es” (“Thou art beautiful, O my love”, Song of Songs”) there was a strong sense of communication between sopranos Einat Aronstein and Yuval Oren, bringing their different timbres together and embellishing vocal lines in good taste. It was at moments like this that Maestro Parrott took a seat, conducting a little here and there, but mostly intent on listening, giving the stage to his singers. There was much to relish in baritone Guy Pelc’s eloquent solos, his vocal agility serving him well in florid lines, the pieces he performed well placed for his vocal range. Such was “Audi coelum” (O heaven hear my words), with Ofri Gross echoing from backstage or in the poignant “Quia respexit” (“For he hath regarded”, Magnificat), the latter adorned with the delicacy of recorders. Rodrigo del Pozo, whose high tenor range enables him to do justice to the demands of the alto part, sang with articulate, smooth assurance, as in the “Fecit potentiam” (“He hath showed strength”, Magnificat) floating the melodic line in long note values against rapid string movement.  In the somewhat enigmatic “Esurientes” (Magnificat), Einat Aronstein and alto Avital Dery gave sensitive expression to the text’s compassion, punctuated by virtuosic, vehement interjections from JBO violinists Noam Schuss and Dafna Ravid, with singers and violinists finally meeting in harmony at the piece’s conclusion.  Another wonderful feature of the performance was how the Psalms and Magnificat were issued in with Simon Lillystone’s distinctive and informed singing of plainchant antiphons, each then be joined by Yoav Meir Weiss, Hillel Sherman and Andrew Parrott himself.

Parrott’s rendition of Monteverdi’s inclusion of the ancient “Ave Maris Stella” hymn (“Hail, Star of the Sea”) bristled with timbral variety, energy and life, as he scored each verse differently, inviting vocal ensemble, Avital Dery, Yuval Oren, Einat Aronstein and Guy Pelc to sing verses, also colouring the ritornellos with different instrumental combinations. In the “Duo Seraphim” (“Two seraphim cried out”), which Parrott has decided to move to the work’s conclusion, Pelc, Florentin and Lillystone struck a splendid blend of musical and timbral consensus in performance that was profound and expressive.

The instrumental aspect of the JBO performance of the Monteverdi “Vespers”, focusing on the unique colour and manner of each instrument, reflected Parrott’s predilection for the mostly economic use of instruments, for personal expression, rather than a massed sound. The instrumentalists complemented the vocal component, providing much delight throughout the evening. What a treat it was to hear guest players Lillystone on viola and the five such fine cornett and sackbut players. In addition to the instrumentalists’ interaction with the singers in the “Vespers”, the evening included Cima’s Sonata for cornetto, trombone and basso continuo (Alma Nir-Meir, James Wigfull, David Shemer) and Valente’s appealing “Salve Regina” (David Shemer), the latter offering the audience some delectable moments in which to take stock of what it was experiencing in this momentous work.

Monteverdi’s rarely performed 1610 “Vespers of the Blessed Virgin” presents an extraordinary array of textures and sonorities in brilliant instrumental writing, rich choruses and moving solo arias and duets. In performance that emerged uncluttered and personal throughout, Maestro Andrew Parrott, clearly addressing the individual sonority and colour of each singer and player, created a breathtakingly beautiful musical canvas for a performance that, for many of those attending, will remain unforgettable.

Photo: Maxim Reider

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