CHORAL MUSIC Monteverdi Vespers of 1610 City of London Festival, St Paul's Cathedral; Venetian Motets etc St John's, Smith Square

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The Independent Culture
After last year's controversial presentation of the atheistic Mass of Life by Frederick Delius, it was back to the Christian liturgy last Thursday for the City of London Festival's annual blockbuster concert at St Paul's Cathedral. The faithful could raise no objections to Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610, even though, in these over-reverberant acoustics, those standing at the rear of the nave had appreciably longer to wait to receive the spiritual message than those seated with the clergy beneath Wren's great dome. William Christie's account of the work was filled with good things, not least the seductive singing of his soloists, a richly coloured continuo group, and his exquisitely sensitive way of phrasing. This was arguably an outstanding interpretation, visionary even in its concern for the relationship between words and music. Yet so much of the expressive detail was lost to the echo that final judgement should wait for a future performance under more favourable conditions.

No doubt the dean and chapter have come to accept the gripes of musicians and critics about the cathedral's musical suitability, made as if their workplace were little more than a badly designed concert hall in need of baffles and sound-absorbing screens. Beyond calling for clear, incisive articulation from his choir in the opening psalm and taking a carefully measured view of the falsobordone sections in the "Dixit Dominus", Christie refused to let the building get the better of the work, wisely aiming for lightness in the dance-like sections, encouraging his singers not to force the tone elsewhere and achieving a rare devotional intimacy in such movements as the "Laetatus sum" and "Ave maris stella". The restrained legato adopted in the Magnificat's "Quia respexit" and by the soprano semi-chorus for the "Sonata sopra Sancta Maria" underlined Christie's penitential take on the Vespers psalm texts, set in relief against the full-blooded solo delivery of the sacred concertos and especially Paul Agnew's impassioned account of "Nigra sum".

Unfavourable acoustics could hardly be cited as a defence for the BBC Singers' impoverished performance of works by Schutz, Monteverdi and Giovanni Gabrieli given at St John's, Smith Square the following night, as the last in the Radio 3 Choral Masterworks series. Bo Holten's reputation as a thoughtful, imaginative interpreter of renaissance and baroque music was tarnished by an ungainly, lead-booted journey through Monteverdi's Beatus vir, only rescued by elegant, free-flowing cornett playing from David Staff and Jeremy West. Worse still was the sour intonation from both solo choirs in the final section of Schutz's Musikalische Exequien and rhythmic slackness earlier in the same work.

Time was when the Singers were routinely attacked in early repertoire for applying too much vibrato, a "sin" banished by the recruitment of new members. Frankly, I would have preferred the former wholehearted approach to the stiff, self-conscious, no-risk policy generally adopted here. Kim Porter's sonorous, clearly focused alto solos together with those of her bass colleagues in the Schutz at least offered some compensation in what otherwise proved a lifeless affair. His Majesty's Sagbutts and Cornetts won the evening's prize for style and accomplishment with their carefully shaped, bold readings of Gabrieli canzonas, done with a welcome spiritedness all too often lacking from the programme's choral items.

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