Austrian Christina Pluhar – continuo mistress extraordinaire – studied guitar, lute, and harp in Graz, the Hague, the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, and finally in Milan. In 1992 she moved to Paris and played continuo in what reads like a catalogue of top shelf Early Music ensembles (Concerto Köln, Les Musiciens du Louvre, and Ricercar Consort to name a few) until founding her own luxury continuo band L’Arpeggiata in 2000. Seeing pictures or video stills of this ensemble brings me so much geek joy. Ms. Pluhar – with her signature flowing ironed-straight red hair and child-like short bangs framing her porcelain face – sitting as the leader behind her harp amongst the gigantic bestiary of plucked historical instruments is the portrait of chic, euro-femininity.
If the band L’Arpeggiata is the black cocktail dress, Pluhar accessorizes each project with the right collaborator: legendary British a cappella group The Kings Singers, Corsican male vocal ensemble Barbara Fortuna, theatrical dancer Anna Dego, Italian folk music specialist, early baroque historian, and tenor Marco Beasley, and more recently, the very-sympathetic-to-Pluhar’s-aesthetic, deluxe French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky.
What these collaborators have in common is a stylish and authentic voice that supports Pluhar’s brilliantly thematic programs: La Tarantella – Songs and Dances to cure the tarantula bite; Los Impossibles – early/traditional music of Latin America and its origins from Spain, Portugal, and Italy; Via Crucis – a pastiche Passion of Christ from the Italian Baroque; and her finally-appealing-to-the-somewhat-larger-baroque-audience-breakout-program Teatro d’Amore – Monteverdi concerted madrigals. The latter spawned one of the most shared youtube clips within the early music community, Philippe Jaroussky’s swinging “Ohimè ch’io cado.”
These increasingly successful projects allowed Pluhar to graduate from the niche European label Alpha to the more widely distributed French baroque label Naïve. In 2009 she joined the Cadillac of classical music labels, Virgin Classics. Hers is a story (still being told) about how to do something unique, do it well, and be recognized for it.
Since her repertory has primarily hovered around the late Italian renaissance and early baroque (save for a few folksongs), and because Teatro d’Amore was an unqualified success, it seemed like a logical progression for L’Arpeggiata to take on the Monteverdi Vespers. This is the first time that Pluhar has presented a monumental work, not one of her genius mash-up programs. The conductor of a Monteverdi Vespers has many decisions to make, as there are many ways of interpreting it: how to distribute the voice parts, which continuo instruments to use, which keys to choose for the Magnificat and Lauda Jerusalem, with Antiphons or without? A huge fan of her work, I waited in suspense to hear her take on the 1610 Vespers, even though I had spent the better part of 2010 (the work’s 400th anniversary year) listening to it on record and from the pews of chapels large and small.
This newest effort represents all that is good and bad with the new wave of H.I.P. European ensembles flooding the marketplace (and they get to flood the marketplace because they are doing original programs, are readily documenting their work on disc and film, are not constricted by unions, and they know how to game youtube with sexy videos). The product is stylish, lithe, and well-packaged, but comes off as whimsical. Pluhar takes a concert approach, eschewing the liturgical antiphons, with one voice on a part. Here L’Arpeggiata is chastely limited to five plucked instruments, one bowed bass, a continuo organ, and the minimum obbligato instruments: two each of violins and violas, and three each of cornetti and trombones. Pluhar is relentless with her brisk tempi, practically ignoring cadences. She keeps the proportions of each movement so mathematically exact that her Vespers clocks in at 75:09 without the chant antiphons. Hers is almost three minutes faster than last year’s Seraphic Fire version – which while boasting a full chamber choir, features an orchestra stripped down to just a continuo section – and a full five minutes faster than the 2002 Stephen Stubbs/Tragicomedia recording – which takes a similar approach to Pluhar’s voice distribution. This is a Vespers on diet pills and after a long detoxifying steam in the sauna.
The singers cannot possibly distinguish themselves under these circumstances. In the famous Orfeo fanfare refashioned as Domine ad adiuvandum, they sound anemic when compared to the brilliant (and louder) cornetti and trombones – a telling start to this uneven disc. Pluhar’s taste is for the lean and vibrato-less voice – even in the male voices – an instrumental and un-bel canto approach. This makes for enlightening and clear textures in the murky density of seven, eight, and ten part choruses. The Nisi Dominus in ten parts normally makes me seasick in the ocean of sound; ten Pluharized voices, however, are merely a refreshing shower. Her singers are a corps de ballet, matching phrases so accurately that one can visualize the notes on the page. Monteverdi’s genius in the opening measures of Dixit Dominus (see the video above) and Laudate Pueri has never been more apparent. Tuning singers like this is rarely a problem, yet despite their transparent sound, the language is not crisp. Vowels in the treble voices especially have little depth and as a result all sound like an angelic “ah.” Furthermore, the execution of coloratura passage work is inconsistent throughout the ensemble, especially among the tenors. They reveal themselves to be human. The running sixteenth note fioriture of “gloria eius” in Laudate pueri and “Illuc emin” in Laetatus sum is destined to fail at Pluhar’s tempi. The sopranos barely capture the notes, and the tenors end up making a slurry of them.
The movements for one, two, and three voices are normally soloistic highlights of this piece, adding gravity and operatic drama. The Vespers was, after all, a job application, and Monteverdi wanted to demonstrate that he could write in all of the Italian styles popular at the time. At Pluhar’s tempi, and with these particular voices obliged to match her aesthetic, these solo movements fade to low-relief (singers’ egos be damned). The aria with echo, Audi coelum, easily the most theatrical movement, is a track you may want to skip as it illustrates Pluhar’s formula at its worst. The tenor soloist cannot manage the increasingly ornamental passagi at this tempo, Monteverdi’s clever rhetorical questions run right into their echoed answers, and the choral entrance – that startling D minor “Omnes” – is merely polite.
Under Christina Pluhar’s direction, it is the band that emerges as the star of the show. The obbligato instruments in particular steal the spotlight with their accurate articulation and colorful tone quality. Alas, the hand is faster than the glottis. As one would expect, the continuo playing is of the highest order. Pluhar at her theorbo spins out pure musical architecture. I forgive her for showing the limitations of the human voice. She has designed a Vespers that restores the glory to the composer and his perfect masterpiece. The 401st year in the life of this enigmatic work is a breeze.