For several centuries Venice was one of the most
powerful cities in Italy and even in Europe. It was proud of its status
and that pride was expressed in both art and music. The basilica of
St Mark witnessed the splendour of music by the Gabrielis and others
which in turn reflected the glories of the city. The performance of
music for two to four choirs was widely admired. The liner-notes for
this recording open with a quotation from a witness to the liturgy on
Christmas Eve. It was one of the many feasts which were taken as an
opportunity to display the musical resources of Venice.
It wasn't the only venue where such music was performed. San Rocco was
a charitable confraternity of wealthy laymen which Giovanni Gabrieli
served as organist. Thanks to a description by Thomas Coryat, an English
traveller, we know that Gabrieli performed his own music in the church
of San Rocco and the Scuola Grande. Musical practice here was hardly
inferior to that in St Mark's. Various ensembles have devoted recordings
to the music which may have been performed on the occasion described
by Coryat. Some of the pieces on this disc may also have been composed
for this confraternity.
The foundation of the polychoral style had been laid by Adrian Willaert,
a representative of the Franco-Flemish school which dominated the music-scene
in Europe for about two centuries. John Whenham, in his liner-notes,
states that the Gabrielis further developed this style and that they
were influenced by Orlandus Lassus, who for many years was at the helm
of the court chapel in Munich. Andrea may have met him on one of his
travels north of the Alps, but Giovanni stayed in Munich for three years.
The lavish style and the contrast between various choirs can be traced
back to performance practice in Munich where Lassus had an unusually
large and brilliant chapel at his disposal.
It is mostly not possible to be sure when Gabrieli's compositions were
written. The pieces on the present programme are taken from two collections
which were printed in 1597 and 1615 respectively. That doesn't necessarily
mean that the compositions in the latter collection all date from the
last years of Gabrieli's career. It is notable, however, that the influences
of the emerging concertante style shine through in some of these works.
This is demonstrated by the two settings of O Jesu mi dulcissime
from 1597 and 1615 respectively. Although they are both for eight voices
and have much in common, the second setting has more declamatory passages,
the voices have a greater independence and harmonically it is more adventurous.
The pieces from the 1615 collection generally have a stronger connection
between text and music, as we can hear, for instance, in Vox Domini
super aquas Jordanis
which includes an eloquent general pause after
the first section.
A large part of Gabrieli's music is extroverted, but there is also more
sober music in his oeuvre. A good example is the Litaniae Beatae
, a long series of exclamations for the assistance
and grace of the Virgin Mary. The two choirs constantly swap roles.
Despite being scored for ten voices Maria virgo
is also rather
intimate. The Magnificat a 12
is certainly joyful which is reflected
in the dominant triple-time rhythm, but not overly exuberant.
The settings of the Kyrie, the first part of the Ordinary of the Mass,
are notable for their diversity in scoring. The Kyrie I a 5
an elaborate upper part which is sung here by Jeremy Budd. He does so
admirably, especially considering the high tessitura of this part, due
to the high pitch of these performances (a=466Hz). In the other two
sections, Christe a 8
and Kyrie II a 12
the voices are
treated much more equally. In this piece old and modern come together.
The composer didn't indicate the participation of instruments as all
voices are texted. However, we know that instruments were used in Venice
- and also elsewhere across Europe - in various roles, either supporting
singers or replacing them. As a consequence every performance of this
repertoire is different, although some conventions have been established.
Differences regard the number of singers involved. Sometimes Gabrieli's
music is performed with choirs; Jeffrey Skidmore has opted for one voice
per part. It is hard to decide how many singers were used in Gabrieli's
time, but the virtue of the practice on this disc is that even in the
large-scale pieces a certain amount of transparency is achieved. The
choice of instruments is also up to the interpreter. The most common
instruments in sacred music were cornetts and sackbuts; these are also
used here, plus two theorbos and two organs.
I have greatly enjoyed this disc which offers a good survey of Gabrieli's
sacred music. The splendour of the music practice in Venice comes off
very well, but the more intimate aspects of Gabrieli's oeuvre are also
convincingly conveyed. The balance within the vocal ensemble and between
singers and players is as good as one would wish, and underlines that
this is ensemble music, not music for solo voices and instruments. In
some pieces I felt that the tempi were a bit too slow; also I could
imagine more exuberance now and then.
In his personal notes Jeffrey Skidmore writes that not that much of
Gabrieli's oeuvre is available on disc. As far as I know he isn't that
badly represented in the catalogue, but a complete recording of his
oeuvre is long overdue. Until such a recording is realised every contribution
to the Gabrieli discography is welcome.
Johan van Veen
See also reviews by Brian