Monday 5 November 2012

Celebrating Gabrieli at Brighton Early Music Festival

Giovanni Gabrieli probably studied in his native Venice with his uncle Andrea Gabrieli. But his period in Munich, working with Lassus, must have had a profound effect on his musical style. When he returned to Venice, while still in his 20's, he started working at St. Mark's Venice and would continue there until his death. Gabrieli was important for the way he developed the poly-choral style into something which we think of as the epitome of Venice. In fact, encountering his music in the concert hall is a relatively rare experience, usually we hear Gabrieli's music on disc. So it was a real pleasure to listen to the BREMF Consort and the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble under the direction of Deborah Roberts perform a programme on Sunday 4 November celebrating the music of Gabrieli (for the 400th anniversary of his death) as part of the Brighton Early Music Festival.

The concert took place in the huge church of St. Bartholomew's in Brighton, giving the performers access to plenty of space for the placement of multiple choirs. The programme consisted of a sequence of Gabrieli's motets (with the addition of two sacred madrigals), interspersed with brass music from the same period. In common with the performance practices of the 16th century, Roberts took a flexible attitude to the use of instruments. The organ continuo was used throughout, but some pieces were performed just by voices, some by a mixture of voice and instruments and one by brass alone.

Gabrieli probably brought ideas of mixing voices and instruments in choirs from the court at Munich where their style of performing polyphony included extensive use of instruments. His earlier pieces give no specifics, but it is clear that some voices had to be played by instruments notably the very high and the very low ones. Later on in his career, Gabrieli started adding notations to scores indicating more clearly the type of scoring.

The concert opened with singers and instrumentalists joining for a performance of Gabrieli's Jubilate Deo. From the first notes, it was clear that there was a further element to the performance, the acoustics of St. Bartholomew's church. If we are accustomed to hearing music which has been recorded, all carefully miked, it can be quite a surprise to hear it live in a lively acoustic. The church's acoustic (arising from the huge volume within the immensely tall building) added distance and a certain fuzziness to the music. All evening, it was clear that the singers were working hard on clarity and rhythm, but this was partially obscured by the venue. It was a bit of a shock at first, but when you got used to it the results were evocatively attractive and I can only commend the performers for making these pieces work in what must be a tricky space to perform in.

Jubilate Deo was quite lightly sung, with speeds which were quite lively; again characteristics which cropped up the other pieces.

Having given us a grand, ensemble piece, the performers then demonstrated another feature of 16th century practice, instrumental versions of choral pieces. The English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble gave us Gabrieli's motet Beata es Virgo, which they performed from the rear balcony of the church.

Gabrieli's Jesu mi dulcissime, which was performed by just choir and organ, was one of the few pieces in the evening to use two balanced choirs. The vast majority of the motets performed used a high choir and a low choir which seems to have been Gabrieli's preferred combination. The two groups can thus act antiphonally together creating interesting oppositions, and then come together for a grand ensemble conclusion.

The English Cornet and Sackbutt Ensemble then played a lively five part piece, Canzon Vigesimaterza, by Claudio Merulo who was an organist at St. Mark's from 1566 to 1584 (when Giovanni Gabrieli took over the post).

Gabrieli's grand Maria Virgo brought choir and instruments together, one of Gabrieli's own lively brass pieces followed; his Canzon a 6. Then to conclude the first half, choir and instrumentalists were joined by more singers for an immensely grand performance of Gabrieli's Quis est iste. The extra participants came from a Gabrieli choral workshop which Deborah Roberts and BREMF held a on 23rd September, thus giving the singers a chance to experience Gabrieli's music in a glorious large-scale performance.

Part two opened with a pair of Gabrieli's madrigals. He didn't write many of these and the two performed were sacred ones, Sacri di Giove and Lieto godea which are both quite close to being motets. For these the BREMF Consort showed its flexibility by reducing to a smaller group, with the second being performed by just eight singers arranged in two choirs, with the addition of a cornett playing top line in each choir. This use of a single instrument on the top vocal line, something which was probably quite common in the period, is not usually done nowadays and it makes a fascinating and striking effect.

Next followed Gabrieli's later version of O Jesu mi dulcissime where the vocal writing has become more complex with some of it more suited to solo voices. The BREMF Consort split into a larger and smaller group, with some sections taken by single voices, to great effect.

Two of the instrumentalists then performed Bassano's Double Division on Veni dilecti mi by Palestrina. Divisions were effectively variations, where an instrument took a passage from an existing piece and created something more elaborate from it. Here, just to show off further, there were two instruments, a cornett and a sackbut, each performing their own interlinked, dazzling music.

Next a pair of pieces from Gabrieli's earliest publication in 1587, which included music by his Uncle Andrea Gabrieli as well. Both Deus Meus and O magnum mysterium were performed with two choirs, one high and low, each combing voices and brass. The results, especially in the concluding Allelulia of O magnum mysterium, were glorious.

Hodie Christus natus est was performed by just choir and organ, before everyone (BREMF Consort, extra singers from the Gabrieli workshop and the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble) joined together for an immensely grand performance of Omnes gentes with four choirs of varying sizes and combinations of voice and instruments all dotted around the church. This was Venetian poly-choral music at its most spectacular.

The BREMF Consort is group founded in 2010 and consisting of a consort of amateur and student solo and consort voices. The group had been heavily involved in the previous night's performances of the Florentine Intermedi of 1589 and their production of another large-scale concert the day after was impressive. Under Deborah Roberts clearly inspiring direction they performed brilliantly, coping with the vagaries of the acoustic and delivering Gabrieli's vocal lines with finesse and liveliness. There were odd moments when things did sag, but these were small imperfections on what was a very impressive and involving experience.

The players of the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble, Gawain Glenton, Sam Goble, Philip Dale, Tom Lees, Andrew Harwood-White and Adrian France, made the performance of this music seem easy, allowing us to forget that their instruments are imperfect and that great technical skill is required. They slipped easily between bravura displays in the instrumental music to supporting the singers in the poly-choral pieces. Their contribution to the evening was notable and brilliant to listen to.

Claire Williams did a sterling job, playing the organ for most of the pieces.

As I have said, Deborah Roberts is clearly an inspiring presence. She trained the singers and drew strong performances, acted as a brilliant traffic policeman in the more complex works and clearly loves the repertoire.

The participation of the members of the Gabrieli workshop lent the evening a very special tone. BREMF is adept at creating events which are particular to the festival rather than being simple off the peg. This was a great example, combining scholarship and period performance with a community involvement. It drew a strong, appreciative audience and I certainly hope we don't have to wait for another 400 years for the next Gabrieli celebration.

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