In Love’s Exchange, a one-off performance for the inaugural Smith Square Autumn Festival, the dynamic early music group La Nuova Musica offer us a series of pairings – primarily, between the Madrigals and sacred music of Monteverdi (1567-1643) and the poetry and prose of John Donne (1572-1631); but also lively musical dialogues between individual singers and players. The format is simple, alternating between music and words (which are read by actor Jamie Parker), with the two converging on several occasions – with mixed results.
The evening opens with ‘Three Dances’ by William Lawes, skilfully performed on lute/theorbo by David Miller and Alex McCartney in a demonstration of both great delicacy and musical understanding between the two players. In ‘Pulchra Es’ from Monteverdi’s celebrated Vespers of 1610, Catherine Hopper’s rich, powerful mezzo soprano duets with the lighter soprano of Mary Bevan (a last-minute stand-in), the two voices weaving in and out of each other incredibly effectively.
It’s an evening of very different halves. The first half featured my musical highlight: Bevan’s solo rendition of Monteverdi’s soaringly beautiful ‘Nigra Sum’ (again from his Vespers) but the poetic element here was hampered by Parker’s muffled reading, delivered from his seat in a nonchalant, bloke-in-pub manner that seemed well suited to the humour of Donne’s ‘A Defence of Woman’s Inconstancy’ but missed the mark elsewhere. Someone must have had a word in his ear during the interval, for he read the rest of his material from a standing position.
In comparison to Sacrifices, La Nuova Musica’s innovative staging of two Baroque oratorios in Shoreditch Town Hall earlier this year, this production was disappointingly static. It was only in the second half that the conventional configuration of performers was upset, firstly with the introduction of three male voices singing the wonderfully discordant ‘Lamento della Ninfa’ from different positions in the church, and then with Bevan moving ghostlike through the audience. The moments of convergence between the poetry and music were also more successful in the second half, with Parker’s more demonstrative style producing a clearer sense of dialogue with Bevan and Hopper; Gawain Glenton’s cornetto playing was also agile and well-rounded throughout.
In his programme notes, director David Bates conjures up ‘an emotional journey’ involving a man, voiced by Donne (‘witty, passionate and confident’) and two women (‘more fugitive’), who sing through Monteverdi’s music. But the disparity of the male/female voice is not so much one of character, but of means of expression. What emotional journey, and what genuine dialogue, might be generated between Donne’s sophistication, irony and sensuousness, and the rather clichéd Petrarchan conceits of the Monteverdi texts – other than one in which the women are languorous, or tragic, and always subject to the objectifying male gaze? Set against Donne’s poetry, I was persuaded that the brilliance of Monteverdi does not lie in what Bates calls his ‘many little stories … full of character and emotion’ but almost entirely in the power of the music.
La Nuova Musica are one of a number of ambitious, inventive young companies creating new platforms for classical music, often in unorthodox settings or in collaboration with other artforms, but Love’s Exchange was fairly straightforward in many respects, with St John’s Smith Square being a stalwart of the classical scene in London. And neither did it quite become more than the sum of its parts, however well performed those parts may have been. Throughout, I couldn’t help but feel that I was listening to a traditional concert with a few poems thrown in for good measure – enjoyable and accomplished, but fundamentally predictable. And in that sense, Love’s Exchange was a missed opportunity to stretch the boundaries of the artform, to ‘make it new’ (as another poet said).
Still over the course of five years, La Nuova Musica have already demonstrated their capacity to give assured, note-perfect performances from the classical repertory (their Messiah for last year’s Spitalfields Festival was utterly brilliant). But under Bates’ vigorous and creative direction, they have the potential to inject the early music scene with much-needed ingenuity and contemporary vision – to find new ways to sing old songs.