This is the kind of repertoire that really benefits from the latest
recording technology, as Audite’s recent Polychoral Splendour
so amply demonstrates (review).
Quite apart from the music itself such collections make me wish for
a multi-channel system so I can savour – in full – the
all-enveloping nature of this music. That said, even in stereo these
discs should be able to convey something of the carefully arranged
spatial relationships this music requires. Audite have certainly achieved
that in the Abbey Church of Muri in Switzerland, which is as vital
a participant in the proceedings as the musicians themselves.
Recorded in the Berliner Dom, a huge neo-Renaissance edifice designed
by Otto and Julius Raschendorff and completed in 1905, this all-Gabrieli
programme is divided into three sections, the last of which includes
a mighty piece for some 21 instruments in three choirs (tr. 15). The
30 brass players – drawn from the city’s orchestras –
use modern instruments, which may be a deal-breaker for those used
to the timbres of cornets, sackbuts and the like. Some may also feel
the selection is somewhat unvaried. That’s not the case with
the Audite disc, where period instruments and the inclusion of works
by Schütz and others guarantees a most rewarding listen.
Reading PentaTone’s publicity material I soon realised their
collection is intended as a hi-fi spectacular. That’s not a
hanging offence, but I had hoped for something a little more substantial
than a disc designed to annoy the neighbours and impress one’s
friends. Audiophiles will be pleased to see this is a DSD recording
– such things carry great weight in certain quarters –
engineered by the well-respected Polyhymnia team. Given these credentials
the sonic results ought to be assured at least.
And so it proves – in part anyway – for the weight and
punch of these forces is almost physical in its intensity. Whether
that alone makes for a satisfying musical experience will depend very
much on what you want from this SACD. After the first five pieces
– taken from Gabrieli’s Canzone e Sonate and
Sacrae Symphoniae – I wondered if my ears would survive
more than an hour of aural battering. There's little or no reverb
and the bright, clean recording emphasises attack and edge at the
expense of weight and warmth. Also, the smooth corporate sheen of
these modern instruments played en masse is something of
a shock after the lively, more piquant sounds of authentic ones heard
in the more grateful spaces of, say, San Marco or San Rocco.
I’ve seen a number of glowing reviews that commend the multi-channel
mix for bringing out the antiphonal nature of much of Gabrieli’s
writing; alas, in stereo these elements are much harder to discern.
Indeed, PentaTone’s recording doesn’t ‘open up’
in the way Audite’s invariably do; that means the organ is often
subsumed by the welter of brass, something of a hazard where such
forces are employed. Even the solo (tr. 13) is a curiously muted affair.
I suspect the extra ambient information available in surround would
address some of these issues, although I’m extremely disappointed
that the engineers haven’t done a more convincing job for those
of us who still listen in stereo.
As I feared this collection is just too unvaried and unremitting,
and I certainly wouldn't want to hear it again. Those in search of
sheer spectacle may feel rather differently. If you’re among
the latter the multi-channel layer is probably your best bet; however,
if you’re more interested in Gabrieli look no further than Paul
McCreesh and his doughty players. Those recordings may be getting
a little old now, but they never fail to invigorate, enlighten and
entertain; sadly, such qualities are sorely lacking in this PentaTone
Head-bangers only need apply; probably best heard in multi-channel.