musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Giovanni GABRIELI (c1554/57 - 1612): Sacred Music

[I] "Sacred Symphonies"
Ex Cathedra; His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts; Concerto Palatino
Dir: Jeffrey Skidmore
rec: May 27 - 29, 2012, London, All Hallows' Church, Gospel Oak
Hyperion - CDA67957 (© 2012) (66'16")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translation: E

Canzon 1. toni a 10 (C176) [1]; Exultet iam angelica turba a 17 (C131); In ecclesiis a 14 (C78) [3]; Kyrie a 5 - Christe a 10 - Kyrie a 12 (C71-73) [3]; Litaniae Beatae Mariae Virginis a 8 (C63) [3]; Magnificat a 12 (C75) [3]; Maria virgo a 10 (C35) [1]; O Jesu mi dulcissime a 8 (C24) [1]; O Jesu mi dulcissime a 8 (C56) [3]; Omnes gentes plaudite manibus a 16 (C52) [1]; Vox Domini super aquas Jordanis a 10 (C64) [3]

[EC] Grace Davidson, Amy Wood, soprano; Matthew Venner, alto; Samuel Boden, Jeremy Budd, Ashley Turnell, tenor; Adrian Horsewood, Greg Skidmore, baritone; Nick Ashby, Simon Gallear, bass; Matthew Nisbet, Lynda Sayce, theorbo; James Johnstone, Vincent Ranger, organ
[HMC&S] Jeremy West, Jamie Savan, cornett; Adam Woolf, Abigail Newman, Stephen Saunders, sackbut
[CP] Bruce Dickey, Doron David Sherwin, cornett; Henning Wiegräbe, Charles Toet, Joost Swinkels, sackbut

[II] "La Musica per San Rocco"
Melodi Cantores; La Pifarescha
Dir: Elena Sartori
rec: March 26 - 28, 2012, Mantua, Basilica di Santa Barbara
Arts - 47762-8 (© 2012) (72'11")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/I; lyrics - no translations
Cover & track-list

Bartolomeo BARBARINO (? - after 1640): Audi, dulcis amica meaad [4]; Ave Mariaad [4]; Venite ad mebd [4]; Giovanni GABRIELI: Buccinate in neomenia tuba a 19 (C 84) [3]; Canzona XIV a 10 (C 207) [1]; Domine Deus meus a 6 (C 127); Fuga 7. tonief; Fuga 9. tonief; In ecclesiis a 14 (C 78) [3]; Litaniae Beatissimae Mariae Virginis a 8 (C 63) [3]; Magnificat a 33 (C 151) (ed. H. Keyte); Ricercare 2. tonie; Ricercare 8. tonie; Sonata XXI con tre violini (C 214)c [2]; Timor et tremor a 6 (C 142); Toccata 2. tonie

[MC; soli] Alessandro Carmignania, Aurelio Schiavonib, cantus; Alberto Allegrezza, tenor; Marco Scavazza, Yiannis Vassilakis, baritone
[LP; soli] Alessandro Ciccolini, Patrizio Focardi, Marco Piantoni, violinc; Gabriele Palomba, chitarroned; Elena Sartori, organe; Paolo Parolini, percussionf

Sources: Giovanni Gabrieli, [1] Sacrae Symphoniae, 1597; [2] Canzoni et sonate, 1615; [3] Symphoniae sacrae … liber secundus, 1615; [4] Leonardo Simonetti, ed, Ghirlanda Sacra, 1625

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. It was especially the basilica of St Mark where the splendour of the music by the Gabrielis and other composers reflected the splendour of the city. The performance of music for two to four choirs was particularly admired and the liner-notes of the Hyperion 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 wealty 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 at the occasion as described by Coryat. Some of the pieces on these discs may 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 to the Hyperion disc, 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 contrasts 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 Ex Cathedra's 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 have generally 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 Mariae Virginis, 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 by 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 has 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 way this music is performed is largely dependent on decisions of the interpreters. In some pieces the composer indicated which parts should be sung and which be played. More often he leaves it to the performers to decide whether or not to use instruments and what role they should take. It is also not always clear whether indications in this regard are to be taken as mere suggestions or as the wish of the composer. A matter of debate is the number of singers to be involved. We don't know exactly how many singers Gabrieli had at his disposal and how many participated in performances of his music. 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. As far as the instruments are concerned, it is clear that cornetts and sackbuts are needed as these were the most commonly-used instruments in sacred music at the time. These are also used here, plus two theorbos and two organs. In some performances strings are also used, but these are omitted here.

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 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 even so every disc devoted to his music is most welcome.

I am not so sure whether that includes the second disc. It is devoted to music which could have been performed at the feast of St Rochus. The main focus is the celebrations at Saturday eve, probably a Vesper service. This explains that the programme closes with the Magnificat a 33. Otherwise the programme hardly includes any Vesper music.

As far as the performance is concerned, the singers are the main problem. The vocal ensemble comprises only male voices; in the solo episodes they explore the very limits of their tessitura which is not always nice to listen to. In the tutti Alessandro Carmignani dominates, and the voices don't blend very well. The expression is sometimes rather limited, for instance in Timor et tremor, which is rather dull. It is very likely that the virtuosic falsettist Bartolomeo Barbarino participated in the celebrations. Therefore the programme includes three sacred concertos from a collection with pieces by various composers printed in 1625. These are specimens of the seconda prattica, but unfortunately the soloists don't explore their expressive character. They are - seemingly not without difficulty - to hit the notes correctly, but there is little room for ornamentation or dynamic shading. The text is hard to understand, especially in the case of Carmignani.

The instrumentalists make the best impression. The programme includes several organ pieces. It is a mystery to me why the two fugues are zipped up with percussion. It is completely useless and damages their character.

All in all, this disc is hardly a convincing contribution to the commemoration of Giovanni Gabrieli's death.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

Concerto Palatino
Ex Cathedra
His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts
Melodi Cantores
La Pifarescha
Elena Sartori

CD Reviews