Friday, May 13, 2022
St John’s, Smith Square, London
Guest Reviewer, Curtis Rogers
Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort and Players (now simply Gabrieli) famously recorded their reconstruction of the coronation of a Venetian Doge in 1989. They did so again in 2012 – also to critical acclaim – and now they brought this programme as a sumptuous opening to this year’s London Festival of Baroque Music, which takes La Serenissima as its theme. Venice knew how to put on a public ceremony, and the coronation of Doge Marino Grimani in 1595 was apparently one of the most lavish throughout the Republic’s extraordinary history. (Incidentally, coming out of a pandemic now, we might reflect that two of that sublime city’s finest churches were built as memorials after devastating plagues in the decades on either side of that reign. One wonders whether anyone, anywhere today, will create any monument in response to Covid as architecturally beautiful or influential as Andrea Palladio’s Il Redentore or Baldassare Longhena’s Salute.)
McCreesh’s programme is only a hypothetical reconstruction of the Doge’s coronation mass which followed the more secular rituals around the Piazza and the Ducal Palace. There is no record of what music was actually performed, but Gabrieli performed some compositions which could well have been heard then. The two most celebrated composers of that era, after whom the ensemble is named – Andrea (c.1533-1585) and his nephew Giovanni (1557-1612) – were both directly connected with the Basilica of St Mark’s, as they were organists there, and the latter held that post at the time of the given coronation. Two chamber organs stood in at St John’s, for the pair at St Mark’s, and Masumi Yamamoto, as it were, for Giovanni, with the splendid flourishes of his Toccata del secondo tono which she executed to open the whole liturgy. Portentous drumming and tensile brass was heard for Cesare Bendinelli’s Sonata 333 as the Procession started outside the building and then moved inwards to prompt the choir to begin.
The principal parts of the Mass were taken from Andrea Gabrieli’s output, and in performance here mimicked the Venetian practice of cori spezzati, or spaced choirs. The first Kyrie à 5 featured urgent solo tenor singing, supported by plangent brass, from up in one side of the Gallery; they then acted in dialogue for the ensuing Christe à 8 with a more relaxed tenor and ensemble in the opposite Gallery, leading to a fuller Kyrie à 12, with the singers down on the main dais in the church now also joining in to create a more enveloping body of sound. The Gloria à 16, similarly en masse, evinced a monumental sonority, gilded by the penetrating tone of a countertenor with a properly tense, Italianate timbre, leading the sound forwards from this highest vocal register of all the assembled singers in the absence of female or treble voices. The Sanctus and Benedictus à 12 were quieter and more reflective, with an expressive tenor solo for “Dominus Deus Sabaoth”. As was the custom, the Agnus
Dei was sung to plainsong. The Offertorium ‘Deus qui beatum Marcum’ by Giovanni Gabrieli reverted to sonic splendour, in this case with crisp, tight ensemble as its homophonic chords were more solid and block-like than the polyphony of the Gloria. The motet ‘Omnes gentes’ constituted an essentially broad, resounding conclusion from the combined forces.
Gabrieli’s instrumental consort (comprising a violin, cornetts, and sackbuts with the organs) provided colourful, lively and rhythmically pert contrast in two of Giovanni’s Canzone (XIII and IX) whilst their presence for the most solemn part of the whole ceremony, the elevation of the Eucharistic bread at the consecration, was movingly, flowingly expressive, with a poignant viola solo in Giovanni’s Sonata VI à Pian’ e Forte creating a mood of spiritual intensity to match anything in Haydn’s Seven Last Words or a late Beethoven Quartet. Yamamoto and James Johnstone offered discreet interjections in a variety of Intonazioni on the organs, culminating in a jolly arrangement of Cesare Gussago’s Sonata La Leona for those two instruments together. The interspersed prayers, and the Scriptural readings were given in austerely delivered plainsong, not drawing attention to themselves among the other more elaborate music.
There was no stand-in for the Doge, but at the centre of the performance was McCreesh, compellingly moulding the contributions from the performers from the other three sides around him, and altogether creating that beguiling blend of solemn awe and ceremonial grandeur which it was the genius of Venice to evoke in its art, music and architecture. The sounds of the city were brilliantly conjured, even if the bold white columns of St John’s Classical structure is rather a far cry from St Mark’s mystical Byzantine splendour.