Tenet Performs a Newly Crafted Baroque Vespers Score
By Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times
The French Baroque composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier never wrote an elaborate choral work in the manner of Monteverdi’s 90-minute “Vespro della Beata Vergine.” But that has not stopped Scott Metcalfe, the early-music violinist and music director of the Green Mountain Project, from piecing together a Vespers score on Charpentier’s behalf.
The project, sponsored by Tenet, the adventurous and excellent early music vocal ensemble in New York, began in 2010 in celebration of the 400th anniversary of Monteverdi’s Vespers. Over the years Mr. Metcalfe has also created alternative Baroque Vespers by assembling individual vocal and instrumental pieces by other composers.
On Friday night at St. Joseph’s Church in Greenwich Village, Tenet gave a radiant account of, call it, the Charpentier/Metcalfe “Les Vespres de la Sainte Vierge Pour le Temps de Noël” (Vespers for the Blessed Virgin Mary at Christmastide).
Mr. Metcalfe was not out of bounds in this venture. Charpentier (1643-1704), a prolific composer of sacred vocal works, wrote settings of psalms, hymns and the Magnificat that would surely have been used in various vespers services. Mr. Metcalfe simply selected some of these pieces and organized them into an overall structure interspersed with chants and a couple of instrumental episodes — sonatas by Giovanni Battista Mazzaferrata. The result was a de facto Charpentier Vespers.
Whatever the provenance of this piece, the concert was a welcome opportunity to hear some Charpentier performed by nine fine singers, including the soprano Jolle Greenleaf, the artistic director of Tenet, and an ensemble of five instruments, including Mr. Metcalfe playing one of two violins. In his day Charpentier was overshadowed by his contemporary Lully, a great composer and savvy careerist who effectively monopolized music at the court of Louis XIV.
From the start of this Vespers, with beautifully focused singing of an opening antiphon that segued into a lush, penetrating “Dixit Dominus” (a setting of Psalm 109), the distinctive qualities of Charpentier’s music came through. He had mastery of contrapuntal intricacies and a keen ear for poignant, melting harmony. His style stands out, though, for its subtlety and refinement. Always at the service of the text, the music evolves in clear phrases. When vocal parts overlap you hear the individual entrances and multivoiced textures. Not once during this assembled “Vespres” did you sense Charpentier showing off, something you cannot say about Lully.
The singing was lovely. The tender sound of the high tenor Owen McIntosh contrasted nicely with the robust lyric tenor Aaron Sheehan and the huskier tenor Jason McStoots. During the “Laetatus sum,” a dramatically charged setting of Psalm 121, when the muscular baritone Jesse Blumbergbroke into a brusque solo episode, he sounded almost like a Verdi baritone, an effect that vividly conveyed the intensity in the music. Ms. Greenleaf, joined by two appealing mezzo-sopranos, Luthien Brackett and Virginia Warnken, blended devotional awe with subtle sensuality in the Magnificat (H. 75).
Charpentier would be surprised to know he had written this piece, and would surely be delighted with the grateful ovation it received.