As I began typing this review, Giovanni Gabrieli, who
almost certainly knew Lassus, the great maestro di capella of
St. Mark’s, Venice had been dead for 400 years and three
days - 12 August 1612. 6 August, however, is the Feast of San
Rocco whom the Venetians especially invoke as a saint who guards
against the plague outbreaks which often exhausted the city
of Venice as in London throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth
The idea of reconstructing a musical event for this Feast began
with Paul McCreesh in 1996. He was likewise inspired by a visit
one Thomas Coryat made to Venice in 1608. A great deal of his
diary entry is quoted in Elena Sartori’s gorgeous and
brilliant excellent programme note. Coryat was totally smitten
with the “admirable” and “delectable”
music, sometimes in sixteen or twenty parts, accompanied by
“sagbutts”, “foure cornets and two violadagamboes”.
He was especially impressed by a male singer whom he thought
at first “an Eunuch, which if he had been would have taken
away some of my admiration”. Incidentally its worth searching
out a book called ‘Odd Tom Coryat’ by R.E. Pritchard
(Sutton Publishing, 2004) which gives a full account of this
extraordinary man’s travels across Europe and much further
east, even into India. It transpires that this singer was “middleaged
as about forty yeares old”. Coryat adds that “if
a nightingale had been in the room, and contended with him for
his superioritie, I think he could not much have bettered”.
From the researches made into payments for musicians in August
1608 it has been discovered that it is more than likely that
this paragon of a singer (clearly a counter-tenor) was one Bartoloemo
Barbarino who being also a composer is represented here by three
motets for solo voice and continuo. These are in the new style,
the ‘seconda prattica’ quite different from Gabrieli.
Barbarino trained and composed in the era of the ‘prima
So this CD consists of organ solos, motets for choir and instruments,
motets for solo voice, and instrumental Toccatas (touch
pieces - quite virtuosic), Ricercars (often rather fugal
or at least imitative), Canzonas (rather fantasia-like
with several tempo changes) and Sonatas. So, in this
excellently planned CD, there is much variety. With the inclusion
of the famous In Ecclesis and ending with a superb Magnificat
this would in many ways be a good place to start if you are,
as it were, a Gabrieli virgin. In addition this disc has the
advantage for some of being a hybrid SACD, ideal for this spacious
The performances I feel are suitable and pleasing. Having said
that I don’t especially care for the sometimes hooty counter-tenor
tone of Alessandro Carmignani in the Barberino motets. He seems
to be struggling a little against the dark resonances of the
large instrumental accompaniment. His diction is not allowed
to shine through, partially I suspect, due to the acoustic which
also, on occasion, creates its problems for the choir.
The instrumental groups and choir members are listed and it’s
worth taking a look at the chosen balance. There are just five
solo singers, all men plus a ‘Schola’ of eleven
voices - all men. La Pifarescha play ‘Historic instruments’
that is, Cornetts and Trombones. Violins are listed as well
as percussion and organ continuo, twenty-two players in all.
They include no fewer than ten trombonists which includes one
alto and three bass instruments. This enables the full effect
of the 'chori spezzati' to be felt: one smaller choir against
a larger one with a central instrumental ensemble. One can imagine
standing high at the west end of St. Marks. Listen to the Magnificat
especially to gain the best idea of what has been achieved.
A comparison could be made with a lovely and similarly planned
recording by the Soloists of the Tolzer Knabenchor (VKJK 0019),
which has just eight voices but includes three female sopranos.
Here the twelve instrumentalists number seven trombones including
three dulcians. What ever may be your preference its important
to weigh these things up as the sound to coming out of these
motets will of course be dictated by the chosen personnel.
If you know any older Gabrieli discs, say by the Ambrosian Singers
in their 1967 recording under Denis Stevens (Classics for Pleasure
7243 5 86049 2 4) then you might have come to expect a massive
and perhaps overpowering choral noise. On that CD is also recorded
Buccinate in neomenia tuba, In ecclesis and the
more restrained and extraordinary, chromatic and expressive
Timor et Tremor. The Ambrosians use women on the upper
lines as opposed to counter-tenors. Sadly there is always a
feeling of too much vibrato in all those voices.
Incidentally don’t be too shocked by the opening track,
and indeed by the penultimate one, both ‘Fuga’.
Elena Sartori is accompanied on the organ by a drum apparently
because of “the clearly dancing tone of these compositions”
and “free, unwritten parts were added providing rhythmic
support”. Ah, well, just enjoy.
My main caveat however is that the texts have not been translated
into any language whatsoever. That may not bother you much but
it is nevertheless a little curmudgeonly of Arts.