Sunday 15 January 2012

OAE on the South Bank

On Friday we went to the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's Gabrieli concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank. The programme mixed some of his Canzonas and Sonatas with sacred music, sung by soprano Julia Doyle and tenor Daniel Auchinloss. The instrumental ensemble consisted of 14 players, 3 violins (one doubling viola), 3 cornetts, 6 sackbutts, and a dulcian, with organ and theorbo providing continuo.

Gabrieli's pieces were all large scale with 10 or 12 parts. In the sacred pieces the mixture of vocal and instrumental textures were pretty much as Gabrieli intended and helped towards textural clarity in the complex works. To provide contrast, there were smaller scale motets by Grandi and Monteverdi which used just voice and continuo with or or two obliggato instruments at most. Grandi was one of a group of contemporaries who worked at less well off churches and so their concentration of works with few instruments was partly economic necessity; not every church was like Venice, which could afford all the musicians needed for Gabrieli's or Monteverdi's large scale pieces.

There were also instrumental interruptions, with sonatas for 3 violins by Fontatna and by Gabrieli and Marini's La Zorzi (the name of which refers to one of the Venetian families).

The musicians sat at the back of the stage and when playing, stood in a large semi-circle with the two continuo players in the centre. This entailed a degree of rearrangement between each piece, but meant that we didn't really get the feel for the cor spezzati aspects of the pieces. This was a big shame. The Queen Elizabeth Hall lacks the right atmosphere for this style of piece and moving the musicians around a bit, giving us a real feel for the multiple choir aspects of Gabrieli's bigger pieces, would have helped enormously.

Instead there was something slightly low-key about the performances, they were competent and nicely played but didn't dazzle and didn't spark in the way that I feel this music should. This is puzzling because the musicians were all on good form. Granted, the cornett players took time to warm up and in the opening Canzon xiv a 10 were less than on top form, but settled down later. Doyle and Auchinloss were placed at the front and came over very much as soloists rather than first among equals. Both were impressive, with Auchinloss being particularly so as he seemed to be entirely unphased by the extremely high tessitura of the part.

This brings me to the issue of pitch. It wasn't mentioned at all in the programme. Pitch in baroque Venice was high, higher than the current A=440, but I'm not clear whether they were playing at this pitch or not. The cornetts sounded as if they were at the top of their range and if the Auchinloss's part had gone any higher then it would have turned into a counter-tenor part. You have to make all sorts of compromises when performing this style of music in concert, but it would have been interesting to know what pitch they were using.

The programme was entitled The Glory of Venice and somehow it didn't quite get there. It was a pleasant and enjoyable evening in the concert hall, but we just weren't transported.


  1. Brian Easter10:49 am

    In the pre-concert introduction to the music, Robert Howarth discussed the issue of pitch at length. He informed us that the players would be playing at the high pitch of A=466.

  2. Nice to know. I suspected as much given the way both the tenor soloist and the cornettists seemed to be operating at the upper limits; and very thrilling it was too.


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