Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

A splendid sound in a special space

In 1964, John Eliot Gardiner, then still an undergraduate at King's College, managed to put together the musical forces to perform the great Monteverdi Vespers of 1610, which was then very much a musical rarity. Things went well, or, as Gardiner tells it in typical under-stated fashion:
I am certain that our performance was more rough than ready, but it seemed to have caused a bit of a stir - and not just within Cambridge.
This debut was indeed auspicious, since it led to the formal creation of the Monteverdi Choir, and to the beginning of Gardiner's great career as a conductor. Fifty years later, in 2014 when this film was made in the Royal Chapel at Versailles, Sir John (or is it Sir John Eliot?) is one of the greats, and he's celebrating a milestone anniversary with a new production of this great music.

And it is indeed great music. In his superb essay Gardiner compares the Vespers to Bach's B Minor Mass; for Monteverdi and Bach these works, "encapsulate the full range of their invention and compositional skills." I'm certainly on board with this. Gardiner speaks of "the burgeoning popularity of the work" through the 70s and 80s, "and of new listeners clearly relishing the music." That was me in the early 70s, listening to this amazing music on CBC Stereo (as Radio2 called itself then), and wondering where on earth it might have come from.

There is outstanding singing here from the Monteverdi Choir and a wide range of superb soloists from within their ranks. Also, to charming and very musical effect, from the young choristers of Les Pages du Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles, and a very fine young soprano soloist. The playing of the English Baroque Soloists is also outstanding. Together they make a splendid sound, abetted by the acoustic of this beautiful space, and enhanced by Gardiner's placement of soloists and the children's choir above, behind, and to the sides of the audience sitting in the nave of the chapel.

The Chapelle Royale in Versailles: add music and serve.
This is all presented in state-of-the-art video and sound. The video direction is outstanding, though I'm a bit confused by all the credits for the many partners involved - Wahoo Production, Chateau de Versailles Spectacles, France 2, and Alpha Classics - so I'm not sure who really was in charge of bringing Gardiner and his musicians to my TV. And not just my TV; besides standard stereo and 5.1 surround sound, the discs enclosed (Blu-ray and DVD) also include the new Binaural or 3D Sound standard, which comes from the Virtual Reality world. This fills my not-especially-high-quality headphones with a full sound that hints at the very large acoustic space without being distractingly space-specific. If there is a distraction here, I think it's my fault. Whenever there's especially good sound on a Blu-ray or DVD concert I tend to close my eyes and miss out on the visual side of things. It'll take a while before I adjust to today's audio technologies, after years of crappy computer speakers and low-bitrate MP3s. God forbid, though, that I ever become an actual boring gold-cable and tube amplifier audiophile!

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