Nobody knows why Monteverdi composed the "Vespers of 1610," although it may have been one of the most dazzling job applications anyone ever filled out. In 1613, Monteverdi did win one of the most prestigious jobs in the musical world, master of music at the Basilica of St. Mark's in Venice.
But the main reason Monteverdi must have written the work was to show that he could; the "Vespers" represent a comprehensive display of virtuoso compositional technique placed in the service of a profound spiritual vision. The work calls for seven soloists, a large orchestra, and a versatile choir capable of dividing into 10 parts; it displays a dazzling range of sonorities, moods, methods, and forms. It is intimate, but it also has pomp and splendor.
Many of the work's details, some of them quite basic, are not spelled out in the manuscript and must be reimagined by an editor. Over the years Boston Baroque's Martin Pearlman has become an expert in informed and effective Monteverdian guesswork. Boston Baroque has recorded his version and is preparing to take it to the new Disney Hall in Los Angeles, the Ravinia Festival in Chicago, and Tanglewood. A pair of Boston performances last weekend paved the way.
Saturday night's account showed that familiar virtues have been passed on to an evolving team of players and soloists. The most effective of the soloists were the imaginative British tenor Lynton Atkinson and Boston Baroque's most consistently glistening soprano, Sharon Baker, who was joined in some lovely duets by young Kristen Watson, who stepped into the limelight when she replaced Dominique Labelle in Handel & Haydn Society concerts last fall. If Watson is as intelligent about her resources as Baker, and as diligent a worker, she could become a valuable presence in the early-music world. Mark Andrew Cleveland's high bass utterances were impressive, and Nicholas Isherwood's bass was an anchor. Another British tenor, Mark Tucker, is a showoff who sometimes let his ego upset his vocal and musical equilibrium. Veteran Frank Kelley joined the other two tenors for one memorable trio; both of them could profit from listening to him attentively.
The choral singing by a team of all-stars was of a high standard, and so was the orchestral playing, although the work of the individual instrumental sections was more pleasing than that of the full ensemble, which too often revealed discrepancies of tuning and intonation. There was special applause for violinists Marilyn McDonald and Julie Leven, for the cornetto section led by Michael Collver, and for organist Peter Sykes and harpsichordist John Gibbons.
Pearlman planned effective traffic patterns and coordinated the spatial relationships (singing from the balcony, echo singing from backstage) with skill, but the greatest gifts he has to bring to Monteverdi are insight and affection. The music made the spirit soar, as it was meant to.