OAE/Robert Howarth – The Glory of Venice

Giovanni Gabrieli
Canzon xvi a 12; Virtutae Magna a 10
Giovanni B. FontanaSonata for three violins
Alessandro Grandi
Salve Regina; Exaudi me Domine
Sonata septimi toni (1) a 8
Claudio Monteverdi
Exulta filia
Jubilate Deo a 10; Cantate Domino a 6; Kyrie a 12
Lauda Zion salvatorem
Gloria a 12; Sonata for three violins; Sanctus/Benedictus a 12
Biagio Marini
La Zorzi
Exultet iam angelica turba

Julia Doyle (soprano) & Daniel Auchincloss (tenor)

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Robert Howarth (chamber organ & director)

Reviewed by: Graham Rogers

Reviewed: 13 January, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

2012 marks the 400th-anniversary of the death of Giovanni Gabrieli, one of the most illustrious of the school of Venetian composers associated with the grand St Mark’s basilica. Robert Howarth has taken this milestone as a welcome opportunity to programme music by Giovanni and several of his contemporaries.

Howarth put together well-structured sequences of pieces that offered an appealing mix of instrumental textures, ranging from grand 12-piece bands down to a single voice plus continuo. There was a wealth of musical variety too: the earliest pieces, such as Gabrieli’s splendid Virtutae Magna (1597), are steeped in Renaissance magnificence, while works like Alessandro Grandi’s Lauda Zion salvatorem look forward eagerly to the dawning Baroque age.

The acoustic of Queen Elizabeth Hall is about as far removed from the reverberant opulence of Venice’s St Mark’s as could be imagined. The relative dryness allowed the chance to appreciate the music’s many contrapuntal complexities with excellent clarity; but, deprived of an all-enveloping resonance, it too often felt limp and apologetic, rather than boldly declamatory.

This overarching impression was also due to some tentative performances. The three cornet players tackled their soaring florid lines with aplomb, most impressively in Marini’s La Zorzi, but a more resounding acoustic would have helped to smooth over the occasional blemish, and bolstered their confidence. Pregnant pauses in the music, built in by the composers to allow listeners to draw breath and savour their lavish creation during several seconds of echo, went for nothing; and, though divided into two halves when required, the semi-circle arrangement of musicians did little justice to the integral antiphonal effects (famously, musicians were dispersed inventively around the body of St Mark’s).

The most intimate pieces came off best. Grandi’s Exaudi me Domine, for solo voice and continuo, was engagingly performed by Daniel Auchincloss, who displayed admirable fluidity and ease in his upper register. He was sensitively accompanied by Howarth and, on theorbo, Elizabeth Kenny. Similarly, Monteverdi’s buoyant madrigal-style Exulta filia allowed the chance for bright-voiced Julia Doyle to shine. In the grander works, both singers blended superbly into the texture, their voices another instrumental part.

The audience warmed to Howarth’s personable banter during stage moves; he is clearly passionate about this repertoire, and an expert in the field. But, sadly, the lacklustre performances of the multi-part pieces did not represent the music of Venice at anything like its glorious best.

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