We all know the expression third time lucky. But in Bach Musica’s case it is fourth time lucky. Multiple promising programmes from Easter onwards were toppled by lockdown and the constraints of Covid on choral rehearsal. But last night in the Auckland Town Hall, Bach Musica triumphantly emerged to present a very Baroque Christmas with Monteverdi’s Vespers (1610).
With a vibrant prelude from Michael Stoddart on the organ with the Allegro from Charles-Marie Widor’s Symphonie VI’, the bustling auditorium readied themselves for a rarely-performed work of early Baroque. Not only do Monteverdi’s Vespers usually get pipped to the post by Handel’s Messiah - they are not exactly chocka-block with Baroque pop hooks. And this is a fiercely difficult work technically and musically requiring two orchestral forces, two choirs and double soloists, not to mention a conductor who is up for the challenge.
Conductor Rita Paczian was en pointe with focus and energy. The Vespers are dizzyingly changeable and Paczian led the array of tempi and sonorities with great clarity. As a work, it’s not known for its arias and foot-tapping tunes but instead is a genius of early Baroque polyphony built on a complexity of evening psalms, elevating Monteverdi’s musical stature to new heights. And in an acoustic as perfect as Auckland’s Town Hall, the music rang with seasonal splendour, ringing in Christmas for the well-filled house.
It was truly thrilling to hear the opening ‘Deus in adjutorium’ with ‘cantor’ Iain Tetley calling forth the choral response in one joyous chord and the brass heralding in the ‘Hallelujah’. Unfolding then, the virtuosic coloratura from sopranos Amelia Berry and Jayne Tankersley, fiendishly difficult to tune, altos Kate Spence and Dilys Fong and a dolce quartet from tenors Andrew Grenon, Iain Tetley, with basses James Harrison and Thomas Roeshol.
The Bach Musica Choir was one of the stars in the evening’s firmament. In every psalm finish, their ‘Amen’ was a miracle of choral shaping by Paczian, a beauty of vocal tone enhanced by the mixing up of sections creating a rich balance of choral sound. Only once did the tempo seem too fast to handle and ran away a little from the choir in ‘Nisi Dominus’. But with ‘Lauda Jerusalem’ before the interval, Paczian wrought exquisite tenderness from the choir.
Supreme musicianship from all the soloists last night. The crystal quality of soprano Amelia Berry matched with the impressive musicality of soprano Jayne Tankersley in the intimately-timed ‘Pulchra es’. An astonishing “Duo Seraphim’ from tenors Iain Tetley and Andrew Grenon with flawless ensemble with continuo cellist Raul Pierard and organist Michael Stoddart, bass James Harrison’s fine vocal tones bringing a darker gloss to the piece.
Highlights of the evening included the tenor duet ’Audi coelum’ with Tetley and Grenon physically separated in the Great Hall to create an echo effect - it was as if we had entered the majestic cloisters of St Marks, Venice. Andrew Grenon truly owned the evening vocally, and his declamation of “Gloria” in the Magnificat section was one of the finest Baroque performances I have witnessed. Such confident melisma and sheer beauty of tone, it seems he was made for Monteverdi.
Orchestral forces were sweet and unified under the precise baton of Paczian. Outstanding unity of expression throughout between Pierard, Lindy Tennent-Brown and Stoddart on continuo/harpsichord/organ. Ringing trumpet tones from Stephen Bemelman and Matthew Verrill in the ‘Sancta Maria’ section. And vignettes of delightful duetting - flautists Catherine Bowie and Christine Kim foils to alto Kate Spence’s almost counter-tenor tones in “Ave maris stella’. Finally a playful parlay between violin section leaders Miranda Hutton and Marko Pop-Ristov to accompany ‘Suscepit Israel’.
We should be humbled and grateful that Aotearoa is able to fill concert halls once again with glorious sounds. Bach Musica certainly claimed their performance space joyously. And it augurs well for their programme in 2021 that restarts the repertoire that was promised in this strange cancelled year.
Monteverdi Vespers 1610
Bach Musica NZ orchestra and chorus directed by Rita Paczian
Amelia Berry Soprano I
Jayne Tankersley Soprano II
Kate Spence Alto I
Dilys Fong Alto II
Andrew Grenon Tenor I
Iain Tetley Tenor II
James Harrison Bass I
Thomas Roshol Bass II
Further information HERE