Magnificent magnificat

Last night I went to Durham Cathedral to hear Sir John Eliot Gardiner conduct1 the Monteverdi vespers. This was quite an event. We (the audience) queued in a very long and orderly line snaking all the way around the green outside this imposing 12th century building, in the dusk. Eventually we assembled. There were three choirs, the English Baroque soloists, and His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts.

I sat in the transept which was the seating that is provided on the left arm of the cross, as it were. There was a huge circular stone column between me and the orchestra, so the sound reached my ears via a deflection from the roof; the roof was so high that it was1 beyond my ordinary field of vision and I had to crane my head back in order to see the arches which connected the columns of stone. The choir did move around from time to time during this evening-long performance. Once they faced me, in the transept, and at that moment the quality of sound greatly improved. Generally, however, the sound was muddy. It was as if the band was using too much reverb in the mix, to apply a contemporary electronic effects analogy to the cathedral’s acoustics.

The degree of echo was sufficient to make it almost impossible to follow the Latin lyrics, even though they were published in the programme with an English translation alongside. A sung consonant has little chance of survival in such a breath-takingly high stone-roofed vault.

I will say one thing for Monteverdi, he gets a lot of musical mileage out of one line of lyric.

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