Pygmalion, choir & orchestra, Raphaël Pichon
Château de Versailles Spectacles CVS018
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This exciting new series of DVDs presents live performances of major works of early music by leading names in the field at the Palace of Versailles. The present DVD of Monteverdi’s Vespers plays out in the Palace Chapel Royal, a space fashioned with a number of balconies ideal for presenting this spatially adventurous work. Pichon and his Pygmalion forces emphasise the theatrical aspects of the work, moving very effectively around the space, usually in darkness and with minimum noise, to appear magically all around the building. The performance opens with a piece of plainchant – a Pater Noster, but one treated like a processional before the drama of the opening ‘movement’ of the Monteverdi. Similar chant interpolations occur throughout the performance, musically a very effective way of breaking up the very dense Monteverdi score (probably never intended to be performed all in one go anyway) and often a handy ‘cover’ for singers to move around the building. One of my very few criticisms of the package is that Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s ‘blow-by-blow’ account of the music in the programme notes – very helpful to the non-specialist viewer/listener – makes no mention of these interpolations, nor of the ‘additions’ at the end (of which more anon), nor of the liturgical context which is being aimed at. My on-screen subtitles also seemed at a loss as to just what this material was. The insertion of a Marian motet by Monteverdi from another source before the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria also passes without comment. The performance ends as it began with the dramatic opening toccata set to new text – a complete fabrication, and depending on your point of view, an outrageous liberty or a theatrical coup. I have heard this done before, and while I initially inclined to the former reaction, increasingly I feel that Monteverdi the opera composer might just have approved of this ‘grand finish’ to one of his most dramatic works. Enough griping about details – the performance is superlatively polished and dynamic, the solo singing stunningly ornamented and beautifully coordinated, the orchestral sound rich and varied and the choral contributions, at ‘high’ pitch, wonderfully precise and focussed and full of drama. Particular mention should be made of the wonderfully leonine solo basses, the declamatory solo tenors, the sublime solo sopranos and the stunning contralto Lucile Richardot, whose voice and presence so impressed my in John Eliot Gardiner’s 2017 Monteverdi opera trilogy – I realise I have just singled out all the soloists for praise! Pichon conducts with passion and gets a hugely passionate performance out of his musicians – occasionally the camera catches individual instrumentalists and singers with expressions of genuine ecstasy on their faces. It is humbling to be reminded at the end that this has been a live performance, having watched a piece of such complexity unfold to such perfection. Mention should also be made of the technicians who lit and captured this complicated event – the sound balance is unerringly superb, no mean feat in this spatially very fluid presentation.
D. James Ross