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Giovanni GABRIELI (c.1554/57 - 1612)
Sacred Symphonies
Vox Domini super aquas Jordanis a 10 (C64) [5:52]
In ecclesiis a 14 (C78) [7:25]
Canzon 1. toni a 10 (C176) [3:15]
O Jesu mi dulcissime a 8 (C24) [1597] [5:07]
Omnes gentes plaudite manibus a 16 (C52) [4:01]
O Jesu mi dulcissime a 8 (C56) [1615] [6:21]
Kyrie a 5 - Christe a 10 - Kyrie a 12 (C71-73) [6:43]
Maria virgo a 10 (C35) [4:56]
Magnificat a 12 (C75) [5:38]
Litaniae Beatae Mariae Virginis a 8 (C63) [12:10]
Exultet iam angelica turba a 17 (C131) [4:41]
Ex Cathedra, His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts, Concerto Palatino/Jeffrey Skidmore
rec. 27-29 May 2012, All Hallows' Church, Gospel Oak, London, UK. DDD
HYPERION CDA67957 [66:16]

For several centuries Venice was one of the most powerful cities in Italy and even in Europe. It was proud of its status and that pride was expressed in both art and music. The basilica of St Mark witnessed the splendour of music by the Gabrielis and others which in turn reflected the glories of the city. The performance of music for two to four choirs was widely admired. The liner-notes for this recording open with a quotation from a witness to the liturgy on Christmas Eve. It was one of the many feasts which were taken as an opportunity to display the musical resources of Venice.
It wasn't the only venue where such music was performed. San Rocco was a charitable confraternity of wealthy laymen which Giovanni Gabrieli served as organist. Thanks to a description by Thomas Coryat, an English traveller, we know that Gabrieli performed his own music in the church of San Rocco and the Scuola Grande. Musical practice here was hardly inferior to that in St Mark's. Various ensembles have devoted recordings to the music which may have been performed on the occasion described by Coryat. Some of the pieces on this disc may also have been composed for this confraternity.
The foundation of the polychoral style had been laid by Adrian Willaert, a representative of the Franco-Flemish school which dominated the music-scene in Europe for about two centuries. John Whenham, in his liner-notes, states that the Gabrielis further developed this style and that they were influenced by Orlandus Lassus, who for many years was at the helm of the court chapel in Munich. Andrea may have met him on one of his travels north of the Alps, but Giovanni stayed in Munich for three years. The lavish style and the contrast between various choirs can be traced back to performance practice in Munich where Lassus had an unusually large and brilliant chapel at his disposal.
It is mostly not possible to be sure when Gabrieli's compositions were written. The pieces on the present programme are taken from two collections which were printed in 1597 and 1615 respectively. That doesn't necessarily mean that the compositions in the latter collection all date from the last years of Gabrieli's career. It is notable, however, that the influences of the emerging concertante style shine through in some of these works. This is demonstrated by the two settings of O Jesu mi dulcissime from 1597 and 1615 respectively. Although they are both for eight voices and have much in common, the second setting has more declamatory passages, the voices have a greater independence and harmonically it is more adventurous. The pieces from the 1615 collection generally have a stronger connection between text and music, as we can hear, for instance, in Vox Domini super aquas Jordanis which includes an eloquent general pause after the first section.
A large part of Gabrieli's music is extroverted, but there is also more sober music in his oeuvre. A good example is the Litaniae Beatae Mariae Virginis, a long series of exclamations for the assistance and grace of the Virgin Mary. The two choirs constantly swap roles. Despite being scored for ten voices Maria virgo is also rather intimate. The Magnificat a 12 is certainly joyful which is reflected in the dominant triple-time rhythm, but not overly exuberant.
The settings of the Kyrie, the first part of the Ordinary of the Mass, are notable for their diversity in scoring. The Kyrie I a 5 has an elaborate upper part which is sung here by Jeremy Budd. He does so admirably, especially considering the high tessitura of this part, due to the high pitch of these performances (a=466Hz). In the other two sections, Christe a 8 and Kyrie II a 12 the voices are treated much more equally. In this piece old and modern come together.
The composer didn't indicate the participation of instruments as all voices are texted. However, we know that instruments were used in Venice - and also elsewhere across Europe - in various roles, either supporting singers or replacing them. As a consequence every performance of this repertoire is different, although some conventions have been established. Differences regard the number of singers involved. Sometimes Gabrieli's music is performed with choirs; Jeffrey Skidmore has opted for one voice per part. It is hard to decide how many singers were used in Gabrieli's time, but the virtue of the practice on this disc is that even in the large-scale pieces a certain amount of transparency is achieved. The choice of instruments is also up to the interpreter. The most common instruments in sacred music were cornetts and sackbuts; these are also used here, plus two theorbos and two organs.
I have greatly enjoyed this disc which offers a good survey of Gabrieli's sacred music. The splendour of the music practice in Venice comes off very well, but the more intimate aspects of Gabrieli's oeuvre are also convincingly conveyed. The balance within the vocal ensemble and between singers and players is as good as one would wish, and underlines that this is ensemble music, not music for solo voices and instruments. In some pieces I felt that the tempi were a bit too slow; also I could imagine more exuberance now and then.
In his personal notes Jeffrey Skidmore writes that not that much of Gabrieli's oeuvre is available on disc. As far as I know he isn't that badly represented in the catalogue, but a complete recording of his oeuvre is long overdue. Until such a recording is realised every contribution to the Gabrieli discography is welcome.
Johan van Veen

See also reviews by Brian Wilson and John Quinn