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Andrea & Giovanni GABRIELI: Sacred music

[I] Andrea GABRIELI (1532/33-1585): Sacrae Cantiones
ensemble officium; Ensemble Gabinetto Armonico
Dir: Wilfried Rombach
rec: Sept 24, 2013 & Sept 30 - Oct 2, 2014, Mössingen, Ev. Kirche Peter und Paul; July 30, 2015, Tübingen, Kath. Stadtkirche St. Johannes
Christophorus - CHR 77390 (© 2016) (63'53")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: D
Cover & track-list

Bonum est confiteri Domino a 5; Deus noster refugium a 5; Domine Dominus noster a 5; Domine, quid multiplicati a 5; Laetare Jerusalem a 5; Laudate Dominum in sanctis suis a 10; Laudate Dominum omnes gentes a 5; Levavi oculos meos a 5; O lux beata Trinitas a 5; O sacrum convivium a 5; Sancta et immaculata a 5; Sic Deus dilexit mundum a 5; Verba mea auribus percipe a 5

Sources: [1] Sacrae cantiones, liber primus, 1565; [2] Concerti di Andrea, e di Gio: Gabrieli ... continenti musica di chiesa, madrigali, & altro ..., libro primo, 1587

[eo] Susan Eitrich, Christine Fürniß, Undine Holzwarth, Angelika Lenter, Maja Molière, Maria-Barbara Stein, soprano; Christine Rombach, Wiebke Wieghardt, contralto; Harald Maiers, alto; Christian Georg, Gerhard Hölzle, Henning Jensen, Achim Plagge, Florian Schmitt, Daniel Schreiber, tenor; Jens Martin-Ludwig, Thomas Scharr, baritone; Christoph Drescher, Thomas Hamberger, Joachim Höchbauer, Julian Popken, bass
[EGA] Friederike Otto, cornett; Christoph Scheerer, Matthias Sprinz, Carsten Ahner, Cas Gevers, sackbut; Carsten Lorenz, Peter Kranefoed, organ

[II] Giovanni GABRIELI (c1554/57-1612): "1615 - Gabrieli in Venice"
The Choir of King's College Cambridge; His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts
Dir: Stephen Cleobury
rec: Jan 11 - 13 & June 22 - 23, 2015, Cambridge, Chapel of King's College
King's College Choir - KGS0012 (2 CDs: / ) (© 2015) (73'10")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Canzona I a 5 (C195); Canzona II a 6 (C196); Canzona III a 6 (C197); Exultavit cor meum in Domino a 6 (C53); Hodie completi sunt dies Pentecostes a 8 (C57); In ecclesiis a 14 (C78); Jubilate Deo omnis terra a 10 (C65); Litaniae Beatae Mariae Virginis a 8 (C63); Magnificat a 14 (C79); Quem vidistis pastores a 14 (C77); Sonata XXI con tre violini a 4 (C214) Surrexit Christus a 11 (C66); Suscipe, clementissime Deus a 12 (C70)

[soli] Gabriel May, treble; Patrick Dunachie, Oliver Finn, alto; Philip Barrett, Sebastian Johns, Daniel Lewis, Toby Ward, tenor; Benedict Kearns, baritone; Robin Mackworth-Young, bass

Wendi Kelly, David Brooker, viola; Jeremie West, Jamie Savan, Helen Roberts, cornett; Adam Woolf, Abigail Newman, Stephanie Dyer, Martyn Sanderson, Miguel Tantos Sevillano, Stephen Saunders, Guy Morley, Ashley Harper, sackbut; Nicholas Perry, Keith McGowan, dulcian; Tom Etheridge, Richard Gowers, Stephen Cleobury, organ

Gabrieli is a famous name in music history. It is inextricably connected to Venice and its glorious polychoral music. However, it is Giovanni who receives most of the attention. In comparison Andrea's music is not that often performed and recorded. Moreover, there is more to the Gabrieli's and to Venice than polychoral music. Sacred concertos for between eight and 33 voices were only performed at special occasions and foreign visitors who expressed their admiration for the musical splendour of Venice mostly attended such events rather than the every-day services in San Marco and other churches.

The first disc, recorded by the ensemble officium, is devoted to Andrea Gabrieli and all but one of the motets in the programme are taken from the collection Sacrae Cantiones of 1565. They were printed in Venice but it seems likely that they date from the time Andrea stayed in Munich when Orlandus Lassus was Kapellmeister to Albrecht V of Bavaria. Lassus' influence is clearly notable in these motets. That comes especially to the fore in the connection between text and music. Gabrieli uses rhythm in particular to single out some words or phrases, such as "in cymbalis benesonantibus" (resounding cymbals) (Laudate Dominum in sanctus eius) or "exsultabo" (I will rejoice) (Bonum est confiteri). There is a strong contrast between the first line of Ego dormivi (the second part of Domine, quid multiplicati sunt) - "I lie down and sleep" - and the opening of the second: "et exsurrexi" - "and I wake again". The opening line of Fluminis impetus (the pars secunda of Deus noster refugium) is vividly depicted: "The streams of the river gladden the city of God". Another feature of Andrea's motets is its remarkable transparency which makes the texts being clearly understandable, despite the fact that Gabrieli sticks to classical polyphony and doesn't turn to the use of homophony. One wonders whether Gabrieli has taken into account here the ideals of the Council of Trent (1545-1563).

The title page of the collection of 1565 includes an interesting indication in regard to performance practice: "extremely comfortable to sing both with fresh voices and with instruments of every kind". Gabrieli must have been impressed by the chapel of voices and instruments Lassus had at his disposal. But the fact that this collection was printed suggests that the practice of using instruments supporting the voices was pretty widespread. This has been used as a justification for some variety in the performances of the motets by the ensemble officium. Some motets are sung a cappella, others by voices with organ or with cornetts and sackbuts playing colla voce. O sacrum convivium has been recorded twice: first in an instrumental version and then with voices alone. Laudate Dominum omnes gentes also appears twice: the disc opens with an instrumental version and later we hear a performance with organ and a cornett playing diminutions. The prima pars of Verba mea auribus is performed with two tenors, cornett and organ.

This leads to the only point of criticism as far as the performances are concerned. Various motets come in two parts and these are sometimes performed with a different line-up. Levavi oculos meos comprises three parts. The first is performed with solo voice (contralto) and organ, the second with voices and instruments and the third with voices and organ. It would be interesting to know how these motets were performed: were the various parts always performed together, as a unity, or could some of them be performed separately? I don't know the answer but I doubt that when they were performed in succession the line-up would have changed from one part to the other. I feel that this way their unity is damaged. This lack of coherence is only reinforced by the pretty long pauses between the parts which are allocated to different tracks.

Otherwise I have nothing but praise for these performances. The very fact that a whole disc is devoted to Andrea Gabrieli and especially to a little known collection of his music deserves much praise. The ensemble officium has delighted us with various fine recordings in the past and this new disc is another jewel in its crown. It is a group of very fine singers which have very clear voices and blend perfectly. The legato is immaculate. The Ensemble Gabinetto Armonico is a good match and the balance between voices and instruments is just right.

With the second disc we turn to what is generally considered the hallmark of Venetian sacred music of around 1600. Giovanni Gabrieli belongs stylistically to the stile antico but especially his Symphoniae Sacrae which were published posthumously in 1615 include several compositions which bear the traces of the new style which emerged around 1600. From this angle Giovanni has to be considered an important link between the stile antico and the stile nuovo. Some pieces include episodes for solo voices supported by instruments or organ. The role of the instruments is also extended: some motets include independent instrumental parts, such as Jubilate Deo which opens with a kind of sinfonia. Gabrieli also played a key role in the development of independent instrumental music as his oeuvre includes a considerable number of canzonas and sonatas, in particular for cornetts and sackbutts. His Sonata XXI con tre violini is one of the very first specifically intended for violins.

Stephen Cleobury has made a choice from the 1615 collection. All but one are for two or more choirs; the exception is the 6-part Exultavit cor meum. One of the items, Quem vidistis pastores, is performed in a reconstruction by Hugh Keyte. More details are in the booklet; suffice to say that the version in the 1615 edition is generally considered defective; Alvise Grani, sackbut player in San Marco, who edited the 1615 collection, has possibly put this piece together "from a preliminary draft or - more likely - a drastically cut-down skeleton score".

The liner-notes open with a quotation from the English writer and traveller Thomas Coryat who visited Venice in 1608. He refers to a choir of 20 voices and an ensemble of 24 instruments. In this recording the Choir of King's College is over 30 and the instrumental ensemble is considerably smaller. The latter seems to be the lesser problem; it is unlikely that all the instruments always participated in performances. The number of singers seems to me a bigger problem, although not the main item here. A choir of exclusively male voices is certainly most in line with what was common at the time. However, the upper voices were probably sung by adult male voices - natural sopranos or castratos - rather than boys. If boys were involved I doubt whether they would have sung in the same manner as the trebles of the King's College Choir. The aesthetics of this choir are rooted in the Victorian era with its predilection for 'innocent', angelic treble voices. As a result one needs quite a number of them in order to counterbalance the lower adult voices. This may work well in 19th-century and later music but is far from ideal in earlier repertoire, especially Italian music from the late 16th and early 17th centuries. I miss volume, variety of colour, flexibility and agility; I miss the sharp edges and the ability to 'attack' this music requires. There is too much legato singing; the texts require a more declamatory treatment. Some tempi are too slow, such as In ecclesiis, and there is too little dynamic shading. The balance between voices and instruments is not entirely satisfying. Moreover, some of the adults use too much vibrato in the solo episodes.

On paper this disc looks a good bet, considering the overall quality of the choir. With His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts we have a fine group of specialists in this repertoire. They don't disappoint; the instrumental pieces are the best part of this disc, although I find it rather odd that the Sonata XXI con tre violini is played on cornetts. But the vocal pieces are largely disappointing. I love this music but I found it hard to concentrate. On balance this disc is rather dull. It does little justice to the splendour of Giovanni Gabrieli's Venice.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

ensemble officium
Choir of King's College Cambridge
His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts

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