CAMBRIDGE — In 1620, for the Feast of St. John the Baptist on June 24, Claudio Monteverdi directed a vespers service at San Giovanni Elemosinario in Venice that a Dutch diplomat in attendance described as “the most perfect music that I ever heard in my life.” On Sunday at the Church of St. Paul in Harvard Square, Green Mountain Project re-created that service in a concert version. It might not have been perfect, but it was pretty close.
Green Mountain Project is a collaboration between two early-music outfits, New York’s Tenet and Boston’s Blue Heron. The group made its Boston-area debut in January 2012 with a Monteverdi “Vespers of 1640,” and followed that up in January 2013 with the composer’s 1610 “Vespers for the Blessed Virgin.” As on those occasions, both at St. Paul, Blue Heron director Scott Metcalfe deployed his musicians — nine vocalists, three violins, two cornetti, four sackbuts, two theorbos, and organ — in imaginative arrangements inside and outside the sanctuary. What differed from that 1620 St. John vespers was that much of the music here was by Monteverdi’s lesser-known contemporaries: Francesco Usper, Gioseffo Guami, Giovanni Felice Sances, Giovanni Gabrieli, and, in particular, the Benedictine nun Chiara Margarita Cozzolani.
My one regret was that, as in the previous concerts, the voices didn’t always register clearly against the cornetti and sackbuts in St. Paul’s resonant acoustic. I wanted to be able to make out every word, because the Green Mountain vocalists, as opposed to the more austere Tallis Scholars, sing with down-to-earth fervor and good humor. During the “Gloria” of Cozzolani’s “Domine ad adjuvandum me festina” opening response, soprano Jolle Greenleaf (Tenet’s artistic director) seemed to be bursting with joy, and the other singers took their cue from her. No long-faced reverence in this group.
Vespers for the Feast of St. John the Baptist, Performed by Green Mountain Project
The evening began with an Usper sonata, the sackbuts’ deep-voiced chorale preceding the call and response of the violins and the cornetti. Everything was geared to the text: In the Monteverdi psalm “Dixit Dominus,” especially, assured serenity alternated with giddy joy. Boston tenor Jason McStoots was suave yet heartfelt in the Monteverdi motet “Currite populi, psallite timpanis”; Greenleaf and fellow Tenet soprano Molly Quinn gave a clarion brilliance to Sances’ “Psallite Domino” and a kicky start to the Monteverdi psalm “Beatus vir.” In the latter, the singers really got their teeth into the words “Dentibus suis fremet” (“He will gnash with his teeth”) before letting it all die away on “peribit” (“shall perish”). There was the celestial polyphony of a motet by Palestrina and the tranquil plainchant of a hymn to St. John sung by the men. A rich feast in just 90 minutes, it sped by all too quickly.