October 6, 2010- THE PLAIN DEALER
British tenor Richard Edgar-Wilson rehearses Monteverdi's "Vespers of 1610" with Apollo's Fire and music director Jeannette Sorrell, left, for performances this week around the region.
Going to vocal extremes is normal business for Richard Edgar-Wilson, an admired British tenor who sings everything from Renaissance music to works that may have been finished this morning.
Edgar-Wilson is heading way back in time these days with Apollo's Fire, the Cleveland Baroque Orchestra, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of a masterpiece. Monteverdi's "Vespers of 1610" will keep music director Jeannette Sorrell and her Apollonian forces busy for 11 performances here and on tour.
Edgar-Wilson is no stranger to Apollo's Fire. He sang with the orchestra in Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" in 2003 and "St. John Passion" a year later. On both occasions, he savored the radiance that is a hallmark of performances by Sorrell and her period-instrument players.
"She's very flexible but has strong convictions about the way she wants the music to go," the tenor said by phone from his home in Ipswich, England. "It's a good guide for a singer."
And the genial Edgar-Wilson has had lots of guidance in the Monteverdi "Vespers," which he's performed often with leading early-music ensembles in Europe and the United States, including Tragicomedia and His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts.
Edgar-Wilson calls Monteverdi's amalgam of transcendent sacred movements "just one of the best pieces in the repertoire." Sorrell couldn't agree more.
"It's honestly my favorite piece of music," she said last week. "If one is allowed to have one, this is it. The fact we get to do it 11 times is quite thrilling."
Thrilling, but also challenging. Monteverdi's "Vespers" has come down through the ages with little idea of how he wanted the music to be performed. There's scant information about instrumentation, including when parts should be played solo or tutti (ensemble).
"There are no indications of tempo, character, dynamics or phrasing," said Sorrell. "Each recording I have on my shelf sounds like a completely different piece of music depending on who leads it."
The subject of interpretation inevitably brings up the issue of authenticity, a word many in the early-music field consider misleading. Edgar-Wilson points out that singers in early music once had to sing with white sound – minus vibrato – if they wanted to get hired.
But views on many aspects of interpretation have changed in recent decades to the benefit of the music, the performers and listeners.
"Now we have the best of all worlds," said Edgar-Wilson. "Communication is important, not dogma.
"Quite recently on [BBC] Radio 3, they did a program called 'Building a Library' in which they go through all of the recordings of a piece. One was Monteverdi 'Vespers.' Some performances you couldn't listen to because the style was so old-fashioned – slow, heavy, with huge forces. I think it's a style we couldn't do today. We do know a lot more and have experimented a lot more."
Sorrell did most of her experimenting on the Monteverdi when she led it here in 1998 and 2001, the last time Apollo's Fire presented the work. She has different singers in 2010 but said her interpretation will be similar to previous performances.
There will be at least one change. Since history has noted that a performance of the "Vespers" was given at a royal wedding in Mantua in 1608 (the piece was published in 1610), Sorrell will bring out the nuptials aspect of the piece with a procession at the start of her concerts.
Otherwise, Sorrell intends to emphasize again Monteverdi's place as one of music's revolutionaries.
"I really think of him like Beethoven," she said. "With Beethoven, it's using Classical forms and Classical instruments with a Romantic spirit.
"In the case of Monteverdi, he inherited Renaissance and even Medieval conventions in church music and Renaissance instruments. But through his incredible imagination he created a much more expressive and dramatic style, which is basically what we call Baroque."
Whenever he performs the "Vespers," Edgar-Wilson is struck by the expressive variety Monteverdi achieved.
"One moment you're singing an operatic aria and the next moment a hymn," he said. "One minute it may be a very florid, virtuoso kind of style and the next it's much more lyrical."
The analogy can be applied to Edgar-Wilson's career. One moment he's singing Monteverdi and the next 20th- or 21st-century music. Soon after he finishes here, he'll head to Milan's La Scala for a production of Benjamin Britten's "Death in Venice. "
Another intriguing project comes in January, when Edgar-Wilson participates in a recording of Bernard Herrmann's "Moby Dick" with the Danish Radio Orchestra and Choir. He's particularly delighted with the role he's been given.
"I get to play Ishmael," he said.