Monteverdi Choir, St James's, Spanish Place, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Two Requiems provided the pillars of this substantial concert by Sir John Eliot Gardiner's Monteverdi Choir and his English Baroque Soloists in the spacious acoustic of St James's Church, Spanish Place.

The first half opened in High Renaissance splendour with a setting in 12 parts of the Sanctus and Benedictus from Giovanni Gabrieli's Symphoniae Sacrae II published posthumously in Venice in 1615: the textures passing majestically between four choral groups reinforced by a cohort of sonorous sackbutts. Scarcely less grand, but with diaphanous contrasts, was "Duo seraphim" by Francisco Guerrero.

Whether the voluptuous swellings and fadings of volume Sir John brought to these pieces would be accounted "authentic", they certainly underlined the extent to which he has evolved from the spick and span towards a more expressive, sostenuto kind of conductor. And in Schütz's Musikalische Exequien of 1636, this proved wholly to the good.

One has heard dry, respectful readings of its long opening sequence, in which Schütz's marvellous responsiveness to verbal rhythms and texture have been reduced to grey monotony.

Not so here, with every contrast characterised, every phrase alive. Indeed, as the final setting of the Nunc Dimittis unfolded, with its angel voices from above, it was impossible not to feel how naturally forces such as these now sing and play this music, compared with the stiff self-consciousness of their "authentic" predecessors only a few decades back.

But then, during the interval, something got lost. For on returning, Sir John launched Brahms's "Geistliches Lied" Op 30 at too slow a tempo. The music failed to flow, and this stickiness pervaded his account of Maurice Duruflé's exquisite Requiem of 1947, so that the opening Introit and Kyrie hung fire and the work's sequence of movements failed to follow through. There were passing grandeurs, such as the blaze of sound the choir unloosed at the Sanctus's climax; and the final tranced In Paradisum cast its wonted spell. But it was a slightly disappointing end to a concert, the first half of which had been so memorable.