Gabrieli brings a taste of Venice to St John’s Smith Square.
Gabrieli Consort & Players (as Gabrieli were back then) released the CD A Venetian Coronation 1595 in 1990. One of the first early music ensemble forays into recreating a particular musical/liturgical event (in this case, the Coronation Mass of Doge Marino Grimani in 1595 at St Mark’s), this interesting combination of rigorous musicological research and brilliant performance caught the attention of critics, receiving many plaudits. The live concert version has been toured a few times since, and, in 2012, the ensemble recorded a revised version. This year, Gabrieli is touring another revision, and their first stop was to exchange evangelists from Mark to John, and to open the London Festival of Baroque Music at St John’s Smith Square.
The programme is an odd mixture of music. Some of it serves an essential liturgical function (plainsong prayers, readings and collects); some is what one might call ‘covering music’: mostly short organ Intonazioni by Giovanni Gabrieli (interestingly twiddly, but somewhat workaday pieces); and then the gloriously polyphonic, polychoral works, by Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli, for choirs of instruments and voices, custom-designed to be performed across the balconied space in St Mark’s basilica.
Friday night’s performance did not disappoint – indeed, it measured up well to the recordings. Like St Mark’s, St John’s also has balconies running along its length, and these, along with the stage, the organ loft, and, for the opening trumpet and drum procession, the space outside, were all put to excellent use such that the alternating and overlapping textures of the choirs rang out within the space. Even the more functional music was given its full worth: the plainsong was skilfully performed (although, on occasions, perhaps a little slow) by the lower voices of the all male chorus; the Intonazioni were delivered with casual brilliance by Masumi Yamamoto, and, closing one’s eyes during them, one could easily conjure the smell of incense, the clank of thuribles and the sotto voce priestly mutterings.
“Friday night’s performance did not disappoint…”
It was the polychoral items, though, that had drawn the audience, and these were delivered with Gabrieli’s usual flair and understanding of the idiom, under the precise direction of Paul McCreesh (the group’s director since its inception). The first taste of this was in Andrea Gabrieli’s setting of the Kyrie, whose regally ponderous two choir alternation (each a solo voice and instruments) moved into a magnificent three choir solidity (with the addition of a full vocal chorus and organ) for the final iteration of Kyrie.
More sprightly were the two large items by Giovanni Gabrieli for instruments only: Canzona XIII à 12 and Canzona IX à 10, the latter, with all the players onstage, gave us some splendidly gnarly textures from lower instruments, over which a cornett and violin attempted to outdo each other in note-runs taken at breakneck speeds.
Two of these pieces, however, stood out, even from the excellence of everything else – each in its own very different way. Andrea Gabrieli’s O Sacrum Convivium à 5 (sung as the Communion motet) was performed by just five voices, with the merest whisper of organ underlay. Its old style polyphony was executed in an exquisitely blended buzz, as if from a consort of dulcians, and the final, softer (but faster) ‘Alleluia’ was special indeed.
The performance of Omnes gentes plaudite à 16 – always the grand finale of this reconstruction – was everything one wanted and more: Mark Chambers’ clarion countertenor voice soared over his hefty choir of accompanying instruments; the duple/triple time swaps were deftly handled; the final bars – underscored by the fruity flatulence of a bass sackbut shunting the harmony into the tonic – were massive. The Queen of the Adriatic would have been proud.