It began with the celebrant walking up the aisle alone and in silence – the man who, 50 years ago, shook the frame of western music and declared Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers to be a masterpiece. So began the gospel according to Sir John – today’s world-renowned septuagenarian conductor-scholar John Eliot Gardiner, who, back in 1964, was just a King’s College undergraduate with a bee in his bonnet. To achieve his goal of breathing life into Vespers, Gardiner founded the Monteverdi Choir – and the rest is indeed history.
The choir, augmented by about 20 original members, now as grey-haired as Gardiner, returned to King’s this week to celebrate not just his choir’s 50th birthday but also the revolution Gardiner led in redefining Monteverdi’s significance. The concert was not an exercise in “period” fidelity. If Gardiner had tried to ape the Vespers he led as a headstrong 20-year-old he would have failed, for he has matured and changed, and the music needed to reflect that.
It was obvious from the opening fanfare – as it was from the subsequent psalms, canticles and hymns – that today’s Monteverdi Choir is more polished, more refined, more virtuosic and, yes, more manicured than ever. And yet the musical exhilaration remains – the delight in rhythmic bounce, in unanimous articulation, in the majesty of the “Laetatus sum”, in the finale’s welling waves. We almost take this for granted now. What a raw, raucous shock it must have been for listeners at the choir’s first performance.
Of course, Sir John’s gospel was never holy writ. Back then, he railed against the preciosity of English choral tradition, but he remains a prisoner of his own King’s College background in his preference for small, pure-toned tenor and soprano voices – most noticeable in the solos and duets of the Vespers’ sacred concertos. Anything further from earthy Italian vocalism would be hard to imagine. And however cleansed it may be of stylistic sin, this Vespers remains a concert performance, with Gardiner at its centre, rather than a piece of religious music in a liturgical context. That is what English choral tradition gets so right – a point amply demonstrated by the St John’s College Chapel Choir at evensong just a couple of hours before Vespers at King’s.
What Gardiner demonstrated in his anniversary performance is that stylistic fidelity is a movable feast, and he has not lost his hunger for it.