Luigi Nono: Fragments of Venice [Westminster Cathedral II]

Music by Augustiner, Reidl, Monteverdi and Giovanni Gabrieli

Royal Academy of Music Brass Soloists

Westminster Cathedral Choir

The Sixteen
Harry Christophers

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 18 October, 2007
Venue: Westminster Cathedral, London

Harry Christophers with 'The Sixteen'This recital saw a further backward extension to the “Luigi Nono: Fragments of Venice” festival similar to that which brought Monteverdi’s “Vespers” earlier in the week. Westminster Cathedral was again the venue for a programme, devised and conducted by Harry Christophers, that demonstrated the broad range of music composed for, and inspired by, St Mark’s Venice in the period that saw the end of the Renaissance and beginning of the Baroque eras. Music that Nono himself would have absorbed at an early age through residing in Venice, and also through the tutelage of Gian Francesco Malipiero, and whose potent interaction of sound and space is fundamental to the composing of Nono’s later years.

The programme was laid out in two, roughly equal parts that combined choral and instrumental pieces – and, in doing so, enabled the full range of spatial possibilities within the building to be exploited. Brief Intonazioniae by Giovanni Gabrieli provided transitions while performers reassembled as necessary.

The first half commenced with pieces for brass ensemble by Ignatius Augustiner and Bartholomäus Riedl heard from above the altar and the entrance, thus defining the extent of the acoustic context for what followed. The plainsong responsory of “Signum magnum” preceded Monteverdi’s “Beatus vir” – most famous of his sacred pieces, whose melodic directness and lively call-and-response between soloists and chorus anticipate the ‘popular music’ of several centuries hence. Victoria’s “Ave regina” provided an austere polyphonic interplay between its choirs, then the antiphonal brass of Gabrieli’s Jubilate Deo resounded from the side galleries. More brass music followed with geographically-inspired pieces by Lodovico Viadana, his La Padovana and La Bergamasca having a rhythmic animation not far removed from dance music of that period. A plainsong alleluia “Felix es” led to Monteverdi’s “Gloria”, whose closely-worked motivic content and sectional contrasts are redolent of symphonic writing a century hence.

The second half opened with another substantial Monteverdi item – his “Dixit Dominus” adopting a linear, episodic approach with which Handel was likely familiar. A lively Canzona by Gabrieli was followed by Giovanni Croce’s “In spiritu humilatatis”, a motet for double choir of quietly affecting understatement, then Cavalli’s “Salve Regina” sounded a note of highly expressive plangency, before Victoria’s “Ave Maria” imparted a timeless contemplation. An imposing Canzona by Gabrieli then prepared for Monteverdi’s “Magnificat”: less evocative in its word-setting than that which rounds off his “Vespers”, this remains an impressive example of how the composer distributes his text between vocal groups so as to build a through-composed entity of real expressive breadth. The plainsong responsory “Gaude Maria Virgo” preceded Gabrieli’s motet “Exultet iam angelica” – its three choirs divided into 14 parts in music whose lucid intricacy was surpassed only by the fusing of its spatial components in the thrilling final alleluia.

The effectiveness of the overall programme was matched by the excellence of the performances, with Westminster Cathedral Choir reaffirming its eminence in music that functions well in both its liturgical and concert setting, and The Sixteen responsive to the incisive direction of Christophers. Nor did the Royal Academy of Brass Soloists disappoint in their vertiginous (!) contributions.

Certainly the historical basis for what Nono himself achieved could not have been more impressively conveyed.

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