Last night's Prom (Prom 53, 23 August) had Robert Hollingworth and I Fagiolini making their Proms debut with a concert based on the music from their recent CD of music for vespers based on Venice in 1612 (see my review). The concert included the world premiere of Hugh Keyte's reconstruction of Gabrieli's In eccelsiis, which Keyte has put back to a putative original version for four five-part choirs, along with the London premiere of Keyte's amazing reconstruction of the 17th century arrangement of a Gabrieli Magnificat. Gabrieli's lost original was for three choirs, but in the 17th century it was arrange for seven, of which only two part books survive, the rest have been reconstructed by Keyte. All in all, we were given a wonderful treat.
Of course, performing in the Albert Hall is rather different to San Rocco in Venice. Scholars and performers have now realised that these big Venetian multi-choir pieces were performed by relatively small groups of singers and instrumentalists and that, rather then being dotted around the building, they were usually rather close together. So that Hollingworth had all his performers, I Fagiolini, the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble and the City Musick, in all 53 performers in loose horse-shoe on stage centred on three organs and two huge theorbos.
Whilst the music performed in the concert was not written for large spaces, composers of the period anticipated this. Lodovico Viadana (1560-1627), four of whose Salmi a quattro chori (1612) were performed, had arranged the pieces so that they could be sung by two or four choirs. And general 17th century theory allows the addition of extra choirs, so that in all the big works there were two extra choirs contributing to the impact. Or as Hollingworth described it in the programme note, 'adding supplementary choirs, which function as a kind of auditory cornflour to enhance the texture at moments of particular grandeur'.
The concert opened with the sequence of four vespers Psalms by Viadana prefixed by his antiphon Deus in adiutorium. Viadana uses a choir of soloists, a choir of more general four-part choral writing, plus the two extra choirs which double at the octave. Viadana effectively developed the solo/chorus type of choral piece and the works very effectively contrasted the solo moments (with some stunning virtuosity) with the bigger choral ones. It was a glorious noise, with the solo parts being smaller in scale but still very definite. Of course, in the Albert Hall what we gain in gloriousness we lose in definition and you could certainly hear details better on CD..
In between the Viadana psalms we had shorter, more small scale moments. Some stunning virtuosity from Gawain Glenton (cornett) and Emily White (sackbut) in Giovanni Bassano's Divisions on Palestrina's 'Introduxit me rex' - basically some elaborate variations on Palestrina's theme. Soprano Clare Wikinson sang Viadana's simple but beautiful O dulcissima Maria. William Purefoy (counter-tenor), Nicholas Mulroy (tenor), Eamonn Dougan (baritone) and Charles Gibbs (bass) gave a full throated and wonderfully passionate and expressive account of Alessandro Grandi's Plorabo die ac nocte.
Gabrieli's Magnificat a 20/28 'con il sicut locutus' was wonderfully magnificent and grand. The solo singing was rich and passionate, matching the instrumentalists and the big moments were glorious. As before, detail was lost, but to experience this music live was an experience in itself.
Tenors Nicholas Hurndal Smith and Matthew Long were full and intense in Monteverdi's Salve Regina, so intense in fact that the end became rather erotic.
Finally, Hugh Keyte's reconstruction of the full version of Gabrieli's In ecclesiis. In his programme note, Keyte was reticent about whether the reconstruction should have made choirs III and IV of five parts each, but to my ears his work sounds perfectly convincing and natural.
Hollingworth and I Fagiolini gave us a rare opportunity to hear this rare but richly rewarding music in performances which were designed to bring out the best in the Albert Hall. As ever, Hollingworth and his singers performed 17th century music in a manner which is vivid, intense and passionate, giving us stylish but big hearted performances which filled the hall.