Monteverdi’s writing in the “Vespers” is organized around a dazzling array of what, for him, were old and new forms: hymn, Gregorian chant, polyphony, operatic monody, arioso and embellished virtuoso singing. Monteverdi poured all of his latest technical innovations into the work, having by that time completed one of the world’s first operas, “L’Orfeo,” in 1607. (The opening fanfare of the “Vespers” is lifted directly from that opera’s introductory toccata, establishing a continuity of mood and method between the two works.)
Given its passionate intensity and structural variety, the “Vespers” pose unusual challenges for performers. “The piece asks for special virtuosity from the singers, for total investment all the time,” Mr. Pichon said. “It’s really performance like sports are performance.”
Monteverdi, he added, is “sometimes writing in really archaic styles from the Renaissance, and then two bars later it’s really modern and he’s experimenting with new things.” That adventurousness is what Mr. Audi finds especially thrilling about in the music. “It’s amazing in 2020 to appreciate the freedom that a composer could have and dared to have at that time,” he said. “And, for a Baroque chorus, it’s one of the biggest tests to be able to master a piece like this.”
The era in which Monteverdi was composing was one of the most exciting in music history, Mr. Pichon said, because it was “like a laboratory,” adding that it was “a unique moment when all the composers of the late Renaissance were looking not only for new forms, languages, new poetic and philosophical aspects, but also to understand space in a different way.”
Ensemble Pygmalion has garnered critical praise for its interpretations of Rameau and Bach, as well as contemporary music commissioned for period instruments. Mr. Pichon has also worked with some of Europe’s most intrepid and renowned stage directors, including Katie Mitchell, Simon McBurney and Romeo Castellucci.
At 35, Mr. Pichon is young in the field of conductors who have specialized in period-ensemble performance. Nodding to the early-music revolution of the 1970s and ’80s, he named Nikolaus Harnoncourt, William Christie and René Jacobs among his influences.
“I think now, for our generation, there is a kind of responsibility, because the legacy is huge,” Mr. Pichon said. He is less concerned with questions of historical authenticity as such and more with the power of the sound his ensemble can create. And, true to this legacy, his goal to demonstrate that “using the proper instruments for every work creates something stronger, something more essential, something that we still need.”