The Glory of Venice: Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Julia Doyle (soprano), Daniel Auchincloss (tenor), Robert Howarth (director), Queen Elizabeth Hall
Music by Giovanni Gabrieli, Giovani B. Fontana, Claudio Monteverdi and Marini.
These are exciting times for fans of Renaissance music. As the OAE players demonstrated this evening, many of the eras more recalcitrant instruments have finally been tamed. It is now possible, provided you are in the company of a world-class ensemble like this one, to hear instruments like the tenor cornett and the dulcian played in tune, in time, and perfectly balanced with the rest of the ensemble. A few decades ago this would have seemed an impossible aspiration, and these kinds of instruments would have been excluded if at all possible, simply for the mess they would otherwise make of the performance.
But just because they are being played well, that doesn't mean they have lost their exotic air. The tone of the cornett is course but penetrating. In this evening’s concert, it was often used to double the soprano voice (of Julia Doyle). They're like chalk and cheese really, but the timbres complement each. The dulcian on the other hand may be beyond redemption. The instrument is an ancestor of the bassoon and is, if anything, even more uncouth than its successor. But again, having the chance to hear it played accurately gave a rare opportunity to asses its musical merits, slim as they turned out to be.
The concert was a celebration of the work of Giovanni Gabrieli, the Venetian master of the generation preceding Monteverdi. Gabrieli's date of birth is not known, so marking the anniversaries of his date of death, which is certain, seems all the more appropriate. This year is the 400th anniversary, and the OAE got in quick with their celebration, the year not yet two weeks old.
The programme contextualised Gabrieli's music by presenting it alongside that of his contemporaries. Curiously, none of his contemporaries, at least not the ones heard here, wrote the sort of music he did. Almost all of the Gabrieli works were large, predominantly instrumental Canzonas, while the intervening works, from composers like Fontana, Grandi and Marini, were more modest, chamber sized affairs. Gabrieli was clearly at the end of a line in Venetian music, with the following generation moving decisively from Renaissance polyphony to a more declamatory Baroque style. This was demonstrated with a later work from Monteverdi, which sounded like it was centuries younger. A sonata for three violins by Gabrieli was included to show that he was aware of this trend, but I wasn't convinced that he had any plans to change his ways.
The ensemble was made up of two singers, two cornetts, one tenor cornett, six sackbutts (astonishingly five of whom were female) and dulcian, with theorbo and chamber organ continuo. It would be inaccurate to describe the singers as soloists; they seemed rather to have an equal status to the instrumentalists. I don't know what the conventions at St Mark's were at the time, but the result tonight was a very instrument-heavy mix. There were one or two solos for the singers, and both acquitted themselves well. Tenor Daniel Auchincloss is a name to look out for. His voice has an agility and sweetness you would associate with a good countertenor, but there is richness there too, and plenty of power at the bottom. Soprano Julia Doyle has the right voice for this early repertoire, and she is able to maintain musical interest even in the absence of vibrato or extreme dynamics. She struggles a little with the top notes though, and having the cornetts double her does little to help because they struggle up there as well.
The continuo group of theorbo and chamber organ was modest but audible. Some excellent theorbo playing here actually, and it is great to get a chance to appreciate an instrument that is all too often seen but not heard. Directing from the organ, Robert Howarth was a jack of all trades. He spent most of the concert playing the bass with his left hand while conducting with his right. But he also doubled as the theorbo player's page turner when required.
Of all the performers this evening, it was the sackbutt players that impressed me most. I had been sceptical of the idea of hearing Gabrieli in the QEH, where the acoustic is dead even by concert hall standards, let alone in comparison to St Mark's Basilica. But it turned out to be a blessing, especially from the point of view of the sackbutts. None of the players had to overblow to make themselves heard, and at moderate dynamics, the instrument has a very pleasing tone indeed. If I've one criticism, it would be that the ensemble was a little top heavy, and there would have been scope to hear more bass sackbutt. The penultimate piece, La Zorzi, was written for, or at least played by, two cornetts and one bass sackbutt, but even here the bass line was virtually inaudible. Better balance though in the final number, Gabrieli's Exultet iam angelica turba, a celebratory motet for which all the musicians were enlisted. The balance here was ideal, as was the instrumentation, which I'm sure was interpretive to a certain extent. Here again the two vocalists took ensemble roles, balancing the vocal timbres with the more exotic instrumental sounds. The result was euphonious and satisfyingly complex, a timely reminder of why Gabrieli's music continues to be celebrated and performed, even 400 years after his death.