The Great Venetians

Giovanni Gabrieli
Sonata XIII a 8
Plaudite, psallite a 12
Sonata XVIII a 14
Dulcis Jesu: sonata con voce a 20
Messa a 4 voci da cappella
Plorabo die ac nocte a 4
O beata Virgo Maria a 3
Dixit Dominus a 8
Magnificat a 7
Salve Regina a 4

His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts
Monteverdi Choir
English Baroque Soloists
Sir John Eliot Gardiner

Reviewed by: Rob Witts

Reviewed: 26 July, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The music composed in the seventeenth-century for St Mark’s Church in Venice forms an astonishing monument to religious power and material wealth. Giovanni Gabrieli, and later Monteverdi, placed multiple choirs of voices and brass in the galleries of the church, whose sonorous exchanges were an aural equivalent of the sumptuous, shining mosaics that decorate the ceiling.

In his generous late-night Prom, Sir John Eliot Gardiner set out to recreate St Mark’s in the Royal Albert Hall, taking advantage of the special acoustic by stationing singers and instruments at different points in the Arena as well as the platform. The effect was beautiful, altering the sound in subtle ways; while a solo voice and continuo were close and intimately affecting, a full chorus with brass and strings gained mass and power with greater distance.

This was a magnificent feat of music-making that recreated the glories of Venice in its pomp. Monteverdi’s posthumously published mass setting for a cappella voices formed a thread through the programme, with movements interspersed with sonatas and canzonas by Giovanni Gabrieli and his contemporaries. The Monteverdi Choir was astonishingly precise, singing with a transparent, limpid sound that allowed every detail of the intricate counterpoint to show through. Gardiner moulded every expressive detail for maximum effect.

Two small-scale works by Monteverdi’s deputy at St Mark’s, Alessandro Grandi, showed off members of the choir as soloists backed by the sensitive continuo playing of members of English Baroque Soloists. “Plorabo die ac nocte”, a contemplation of Mary’s grief at the foot of the cross, was astonishingly intense, performed with lacerating purity of tone. Other comparative rarities included the majestic “Dixit Dominus” of Giovanni Antonio Rigatti, which recalled the warlike rhythms of Monteverdi’s “Il Combattimento” in a setting for chorus, soloists and a large array of instrumentalists.

The playing throughout matched the high standard of the singing, with the warm, rich tones of His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts shining in several sonatas by Gabrieli; particularly fine were the gorgeous chromatic harmonies of Sonata XVIII. Only in the opening sonata were the opposing brass choirs not entirely co-ordinated; after this bumpy start, the dispersed ensembles achieved an impressive unison. The finale, Gabrieli’s massive sonata “Dulcis Jesu” for 20 voices, found choirs and brass distributed around the platform and by the organ, creating a sublime, glorious sound: the apotheosis of choral splendour.

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