Review: Monteverdi Revisited

Monteverdi Revisited
(The Sixteen, dir. Harry Christophers, Julian Joseph, Mark Hodgson
Christ Church Spitalfields, part of 2010 Spitalfields Festival, June 24th 2010,
Photo credit Jason Bye/ Sunday Times)

“Monteverdi Revisited,” a new collaboration between jazz pianist Julian Joseph with bassist Mark Hodgson, and the baroque group The Sixteen produced outstanding and beautiful results on its first outing at the Spitalfields Festival last night.

If these performers had attempted this project, say, fifteen years ago, the risk levels would have been much higher, the need for rehearsal longer, the outcomes far less certain. This is, on one hand, because of the astonishing phenomenon of the explosion of jazz piano talent in Britain in the past few years. More and more of these astonishing musicians – Gwilym Simcock, probably the most prominent example- have worked extensively with classical musicians in the intervening years.

But probably even more significant are the leaps forward in the standards of baroque performance. The singers and instrumentalists of the Sixteen don’t just bring unbelievable accuracy and control to the music. They now also bring a responsiveness, freshness and alertness to it – even while presenting the concert for radio, as last night – which simply did not exist then. In this case it is a function of the number of times the members of groups like The Sixteen have been out on the road, developed, and built experience in performance.

The Sixteen had demonstrated this completely in their early evening concert, a selection from Selva Morale, published in 1640 towards the end of his life, without the jazz musicians. Monteverdi’s sharply-etched contrasts in texture and mood came forth with real exuberance. Just a couple of joyous examples from hundreds: the word “exaltabitur” in “Beatus Vir” was delivered with a rhythmic kick under Christophers’ direction, suddenly propelling the music forwards. It was also wonderful to hear, in the rising Amen of Confitebor, the two sopranos’ voices rising, enjoying to the full the glorious reverb of Hawksmoor’s 1729 church.

The origins of the “Monteverdi Revisited” project were a chance meeting between Harry Christophers and Julian Joseph a couple of years ago in the BBC. After a few more meetings Christophers, in his role of Associate Artist of the Spitalfields Festival, had offered Abigail Pogson of the Spitalfields Festival this project. Spitalfields is a well-organized festival with a host of donors and volunteers, and has picked a winner.

Christophers explained in an illuminating post-concert interview with Martin Kettle that he had wondered about revisiting and stretching out the “ritornelli” in Monteverdi to incorporate improvised sections. For example, the two-voice motet Salve Regina is a four minute work in the collection Selva Morale. Christophers was interested in producing a fuller performing version. This piece, the last to be performed, received the most substantial of the re-workings, culminating in a brief episode in a very interesting place indeed… possibly never previously inhabited by a jazz musician: between the words “O dulcis virgo” and “Maria.”

In Salve Regina and in the other works, Christophers’ has built structures to work in performance. And they do. The first work played was an organ improvisation by Alastair Ross. There were episodes which used the building to good effect. There were episodes where the jazz musicians took a section, and also times when forces combined.

A key figure in setting up the collaboration was the chitarrone player David (Dai) Miller. He works off a figured bass rather than a written part, and there has clearly been a very constructive dialogue which between him and Joseph as the chord sequences for the improvised sections. The colour from the three continuo instruments – Chitarrone, harp, harpsichord, comes from the way in which the three players spread the chords. In jazz they come from the extra harmonic information in comping. So the trick, when successfully achieved – it was, consistently last night- is to know the moments when it can be pushed, but to give space, keep out of each others’ way, to avoid the train wreck. Another issue is to align the particular, accented feel for 3/4 time which the baroque musicians have, with the jazz sensibility, while also letting the jazz episodes have their own identity as a commentary, as clearly coming from somewhere else.

The trickiest, the most high-wire of the performances was “Che vol che m’innamori.” Time and again Julian Joseph on piano and Mark Hodgson on bass pared the volume down, in order to hand over to the the two quietest instruments on the stage: the chittarone of David Miller or/and the harp of Frances Kelly. For my ears, it was Kelly’s faultless judgment of the precise length of the silence to leave before taking over the story from Julian Joseph, and her judgment of dynamic and of mood in this piece, which produced the most deeply affecting moment of the evening.

The performance, sponsored by Hammerson, will be broadcast on Performance on 3 on July 2nd. Some of the piano detail was lost in the echo-ey church, it will be great to catch on radio.

In their talk, both Christophers and Joseph saw this performance as a first step, and their collaboration as something which has a lot further to go. This is a project which is bound to develop, but, because of the forces involved, it’s going to come up fresh every time.

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