It seems we will never know what motivated Monteverdi to bundle together five psalm settings and four concertato motets with an instrumental sonata, a hymn and two settings of the Magnificat, and publish them in Venice in 1610 as Vespers for the Blessed Virgin. There’s no evidence that the collection was ever performed in its entirety in Monteverdi’s lifetime, or even, despite much of its content, that he intended it as a single liturgical work. The mystery surrounding its purpose leaves performers today with a whole range of performing possibilities for the Vespers, both sacred and secular. But Christina Pluhar and the singers and instrumentalists of L’Arpeggiata treat it unambiguously as a work for the concert hall rather than a church or cathedral.
Pluhar presents the music exactly as it appears in the 1610 edition, without any extra numbers or the antiphons with which some conductors preface each of the psalms. Her Barbican performance was urgent and to the point. With just 10 singers, and an ensemble of 12 players, clarity was everything, the kind of performance that would have been smudged and lost in a cavernous church acoustic. The dryness of the Barbican sound suited it perfectly, so that the technical accomplishment of the instrumentalists and the precision of the singers were easily appreciated.
With just a single voice to each part in the choral numbers, there was no hint of grandeur or vocal splendour, even in the sentences of the closing Magnificat. Some of the solo motets might have benefited from a bit more sumptuousness, for voices had clearly been selected for their flexibility rather than their intrinsic quality. But instead of a choral extravaganza, what we heard was a performance of the Vespers that underlined its origins in a period when Monteverdi was also composing his first operatic masterpieces. As sung here, the solo-tenor motet Nigra Sum, or the soprano-and-mezzo Pulchra Es, seemed worlds away from any kind of liturgical setting, and much closer to the great set pieces of L’Orfeo. Everything about the energy and verve of the performance was thoroughly theatrical, too.