musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Andrea GABRIELI (1533 - 1585): "Messa bassa a San Marco"

I Cantori di San Marco
Dir: Marco Gemmani

rec: Oct 2012, Preganziol (Treviso), Velut Luna Recording Studio
Tactus - TC 530701 (© 2014) (70'23")
Liner-notes: E/I; lyrics - no translations
Cover & track-list
Score Concerti 1587

Angelus ad pastores ait a 7 [2]; Angelus Domini descendit a 7 [2]; Beatus vir qui non abiit a 6 [2]; Domine Deus meus a 7 [2]; Emendemus in melius a 6 [2]; Eructavit cor meum a 6 [2]; Hodie Christus natus est a 7 [2]; Iniquos odio habui a 6 [2]; Isti sunt triumphatores a 6 [2]; Iudica me Deus a 7 [2]; Maria Magdalenae a 7 [2]; Maria stabat ad monumentum a 6 [2]; Missa Vexilla Regis a 6 [1]; O gloriosa Domina a 6 [2]; Sancta Maria succurre miseris a 6 [2]

Source: [1] Primus liber missarum, 1572; [2] Concerti di Andrea, e di Gio: Gabrieli ... continenti musica di chiesa, madrigali, & altro ... libro primo, 1587

Alice Borciani, Elena Modena, soprano; Julio Fioravante, alto; Marco Mustaro, Dino Lüthy, tenor; Yiannis Vassilakis, Marcin Wyszkowski, bass

For some centuries Venice was one of the major music centres of Italy and even of Europe. Many aristocrats visited the city as part of their grand tour to witness its splendour and to listen to how this was expressed in music. Young musicians travelled to Venice to study, especially with Giovanni Gabrieli, the organist of San Marco. From 1585 until his death it was also his duty to compose its ceremonial music. Before that this had been the task of his uncle Andrea who is the subject of this disc.

The music written and performed in Venice in the decades around 1600 didn't only exert great attraction for contemporary musicians and music-lovers but also for performers and audiences of our own time. That is true especially of the large-scale vocal music, reflecting the practice of cori spezzati. This was highly influential in its time: music for two or more choirs was composed in other parts of Europe as well, in many cases under the direct influence of what was written in Venice, by the Gabrielis and earlier by Adrian Willaert, strictly speaking the founder of the polychoral style. Examples are the polychoral works of north German composer Michael Praetorius. In 1619 Heinrich Schütz published his Psalmen Davids, which he composed under the influence of what he had heard in Venice where he had studied with Giovanni Gabrieli.

In fact, polychoral music was only performed at special occasions. In the day-to-day liturgical practice music of more modest proportions was used. This part of the repertoire has been more or less neglected as it is overshadowed by the polychoral works. That is certainly the case with the motets which are performed on the present disc. In his liner-notes Marco Gemmani, since 2000 maestro di cappella of San Marco, states that the Doge not only attended splendid liturgical celebrations but also, on a more regular basis, a low mass (the Messa bassa of this disc's title) in a side chapel, where the performing forces were much more modest. "The ceremonial, however, ruled that the choir was to sing in any case, whenever the Doge was present in the Basilica. Many clues that are scattered in the Liber Ceremoniale lead us to conclude that in these morning Masses the music was performed by a small group of singers, often without the accompaniment of the organ. So it is quite likely that on these occasions an a cappella Mass, for instance one of the four six-part Masses published by Andrea Gabrieli in 1572, or some of his six- or seven-part motets drawn from his Concerti of 1587, were performed."

It is telling that David Bryant, in his article on Andrea Gabrieli in New Grove, in the paragraph on his sacred works exclusively focuses on the polychoral and ceremonial works and ignores the smaller-scale motets - the kind of pieces performed on this disc. That is a shame because this recording proves that they are very good and have much to offer. The programme opens with three motets for Easter, and these are quite different. It is striking how well Gabrieli has translated the text into music. Maria Magdalenae recounts how the women go to the sepulchre where Jesus has been laid and meet an angel who tells them that he has risen from the dead. The dramatic character of this meeting is vividly exposed. Maria stabat ad monumentum is much more static, reflecting the text which is about Mary standing at the sepulchre and weeping. The angels ask her why she is weeping. Angelus domini descendit has again a more dramatic character: "An angel of the Lord came down from heaven, and rolled back the stone, and sat on it." The opening line includes a descending figure, the rolling back of the stone is illustrated by several voices entering one after the other which creates a great amount of dynamism. "And sat on it" is set homophonically.

Eructavit cor meum is the setting of the first verses of Psalm 45: " My heart is inditing a good matter: I speake of the things which I have made, touching the King: my tongue is the penne of a ready writer." (King James version). Here the Vulgata has "velociter" (swiftly) and that is vividly depicted in Gabrieli's setting. O gloriosa Domina is a setting of the second half of the hymn Quem terra, pontus, aethera, written by Venantius Fortunatus (530-609), the Bishop of Poitiers. It is in four stanzas, and in the second the contrasts between the first and the second and between the third and fourth lines are clearly exposed. These are just some examples of the way Andrea Gabrieli treated a text. Heinrich Schütz paid a tribute to the master as late as 1648 when he published his Geistliche Chor-Music. The motet Der Engel sprach is a reworking of Gabrieli's motet Angelus ad pastores ait.

As one can see in the header the motets and the mass are performed with one voice per part, without any instrumental support. That is, as Marco Gemmani explained, the most likely option. It is probably not the only option: in the Agnus Dei from the Missa Vexilla regis the number of voices is extended from six to seven. That was quite common in the 16th century, but I wonder whether we should believe that one singer was doing nothing until the last section of the mass. Is it conceivable that the tenor part could have been sung by two singers who then split in the Agnus Dei? The middle voices always tend to be overshadowed by the sopranos and the basses anyway. I am also a bit surprised that the intonations of the Gloria and the Credo are omitted.

The performance of renaissance polyphony is still largely dominated by British vocal ensembles. If you have their sound in mind and especially if you consider their interpretations as the ideal, you will need some time to get used to what you will hear from this disc. Homogeneity of sound and a perfect blending of the voices seems not to be the main concern of the singers and their director. All the voices have a character of their own and that comes clearly to the fore in the way Gabrieli's mass and motets are sung here. Unfortunately it means that there is some vibrato in the lower voices. However, it is not that strong and not too obtrusive. It didn't spoil my enjoyment of these performances which are quite colourful and very expressive. The text is given much attention and the passages where the text is eloquently translated into music - in particular those which are taken from the Gospels - receive incisive interpretations.

The booklet omits the lyrics; these can be downloaded from the Tactus site, but come without English translations. However, in many cases these can be found on the internet.

This disc is of major importance as it sheds light on music which is not as well known as it deserves to be.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

I Cantori di San Marco

CD Reviews