MUSIC / Speeding up and slowing down: Tess Knighton on some minimal Monteverdi with the New London Consort at the Queen Elizabeth Hall

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The Independent Culture
A FEW years ago, Andrew Parrott in this country and Joshua Rifkin in the States created quite a stir with their minimalist Bach, with the soloists doubling as chorus and strings one to a part. More recently Philip Pickett and the New London Consort have adopted the same approach to the large-scale works of Monteverdi: first the 1610 Vespers and now Orfeo. However, this is not just fashionable cost-cutting; it is an approach based on the evidence of musicological research. We know, for example, that at the first performances of Monteverdi's opera, one singer took three of the smaller roles - although it is also clear that the castrato in question was not too happy with this particular arrangement.

Pickett has done his research thoroughly and has thought hard about the instrumentation, following closely (and perhaps more consistently than previous modern interpreters) what evidence we have for the symbolic associations certain groups of instruments had for that original audience of 1607. He interprets the clef combination used in the choruses of 'Spiriti infernali' as implying downward transposition, so that the low tessitura of male voices heightens the otherworldly effect. Once across the Styx you're not likely to hear anything above middle C - at least according to the accepted traditions of Monteverdi's time.

Recent musicological thinking has also influenced another important and quite distinctive aspect of Pickett's version of Orfeo: the realisation of the implications of the original mensuration signs ('time signatures', in effect) for the tempo of the different sections. This made for one or two surprises where the tempo was notably faster or slower than usually encountered in modern performances, but these revised ideas of tempo relationship generally worked well. One of the great strengths of this performance was the way in which the New London Consort coloured each statement of an instrumental ritornello with the character of the sung passage to which it related, giving the whole a cogent sense of continuity and flow.

The standard of singing and playing was high, though a moment of panic among the cornetts and a badly out-of-tune harp rather undermined Orfeo's credibility in 'Possente spirito': Charon might well have kept his eyes open if this was the best the great Orpheus could do. It was no reflection, however, on John Mark Ainsley's suitably lean and expressive account of the title role. Much of Monteverdi's writing lies fairly low in his voice and he was not always able to bring quite the degree of focus and intensity of Nigel Rogers in his heyday, yet this was none the less a strong and at times moving performance. The smaller roles were all dispatched well, with Catherine Bott happily taking the three- in-one part.

For all the expertise that had gone into this Orfeo, it lacked a strong sense of drama: it was all rather too polite to be passionate, too refined for the raw emotion at the heart of the story and underlying Monteverdi's score, despite its debt to formalised court entertainment. Precision kept spontaneity well in check here and the dramatic temperature remained correspondingly cool.