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Hyperion Records

CDA67957 - Gabrieli: Sacred Symphonies
The Transfiguration (1594/5, detail) by Lodovico Carracci (1555-1619)
Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna / Alinari / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: May 2012
All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: November 2012
Total duration: 66 minutes 9 seconds


'This recital focuses on the Sacrae Symphoniae that represent his output at its most varied … when Ex Cathedra sing as a choir, as in the extended Litany, even Gabrieli's most staid oratory communicates with fervour' (Gramophone)

'There's great variety among the wonderful split-chorus effects, the hypnotic chordal intonations and the lovely spicy harmonic clashes … in the final piece, Exultent iam angelica … the performers marvellously project the power, glory and praise of this music' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Ex Cathedra under Jeffrey Skidmore, matched by the pungent colours of the period instruments, enunciates the words with crisp clarity, singing with fluency and relishing the sumptuous soundscapes that Gabrieli envisaged. Emotional sensitivity and reverence are harnessed as well, notably in the eight-part Litaniae Beatae Mariae Virginis, where Gabrieli’s ingenuity in finding different solutions for the repetitive 'ora pro nobis' highlights an inspired creativity that this disc illustrates in abundance' (The Daily Telegraph)

'Warmth and opulence permeate every pore of this deeply attractive and strangely compelling recording … this disc reveals an exceptionally high level of both accomplishment and expertise, and if a single track had to be singled out to show just how at ease the singers are in this repertoire, I would point straight to the magnificent Magnificat, which positively crackles with high-voltage intensity as the music passes rapidly between the three choirs. Again, excellent solo voices emerge from the texture with a wholly natural ease, while Skidmore drives it along with considerable verve and energy … this is altogether a superb release, which, while serving the cause of Gabrieli admirably, also reveals the best in British-based Early Music performing' (International Record Review)

'Jeffrey Skidmore's Ex Cathedra is an excellent choice … all three ensembles perform at a very high technical level, whether in massed groups or solos; stylistically well matched, and expertly led … Hyperion's recording team deserves a round of applause of their own for creating the perfect sound for all this … highly recommended' (Fanfare, USA)

Sacred Symphonies

A welcome return to Hyperion for Ex Cathedra and Jeffrey Skidmore, whose exuberant recordings of Baroque music from around the world have made them one of the best-loved ensembles of today.

This latest release presents the music of Giovanni Gabrieli in his four-hundredth anniversary year. These magnificent liturgical settings from the heart of the Venetian polychoral tradition are full of drama, wonder and extraordinary spatial effects. His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts and Concerto Palatino provide the sonic gilding that would have been an essential part of the original performances, when extra musicians crowded the galleries of St Mark’s for special occasions.

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On Christmas Eve … around two hours before sunset, the doge descends [to St Mark’s from his palace], and joined by the vicar of that church accompanied by four subcanons [stands] on the first of the steps in front of the altar … and, surrounded by the Signoria and other nobles, begins the intonation of Vespers, which is then continued with vocal music and the sweetest playing by the salaried musicians of the church, and by others hired specially to make a greater number, since on that evening they perform in eight, ten, twelve and sixteen choirs [parts] to the wonder and amazement of everyone, especially foreigners, who confess that they have never heard music so rare or singular than this in other parts of the world. And they tell the truth, for the musicians here, both vocal and instrumental, are most excellent, having as their particular masters and heads those three famous young men [Giovanni] Croce, called ‘the Chioggian’, [Giovanni] Gabrieli and [Giovanni] Bassano.
(Francesco Sansovino, Venetia città nobilissima et singolare, revised 1604 by Giovanni Stringa, the cleric in charge of ceremonial at St Mark’s, Venice. Croce was choirmaster of St Mark’s, Gabrieli second organist, and Bassano head of the instrumental ensemble.)

In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries the celebration of Christmas Eve at St Mark’s, Venice, in common with all the major feasts in the church year, was a very grand occasion, attended not only by the doge, but also by the papal nuncio, important visitors to the city, foreign ambassadors and members of the Venetian nobility. And it was a very lengthy occasion, with Vespers being followed immediately by Compline, Matins and the first High Mass of Christmas. At this time St Mark’s was not Venice’s cathedral, but the state church of the Venetian republic, and the beauty and grandeur of its music was indeed intended to impress, and to play its part as an emblem of the devout and harmonious nature of the Venetian state under the special protection of the Virgin Mary, who is celebrated on this recording by the motet Maria virgo and the Litany of the Blessed Virgin. As the outstanding Venetian composer of his generation, Giovanni Gabrieli played a key part in promoting Venice’s self-image by developing large-scale music at St Mark’s, particularly music that used cori spezzati—multiple choirs of voices and instruments spaced apart in different locations—to produce an early form of ‘surround sound’.

We can share something of the sense of wonder produced by Gabrieli’s music on Christmas Eve at St Mark’s when we hear a work like his twelve-part, three-choir, setting of the Magnificat, the musical climax of Vespers (he also produced settings of this text for 14, 17, 20 and 33 voices), and his setting of the Kyrie of the Mass, rising from five, through eight, to twelve voices. Both of these pieces, issued in a collection of his music published in 1615, would have been appropriate to a major festival such as Christmas, as would his instrumental canzonas and sonatas for sackbuts and cornets, which would have been used for processions preceding the service, and, perhaps, between the Psalms at Vespers or occasionally as substitutes for vocal items in the Mass.

We do not know for certain when or where Gabrieli was born. The record of his death from kidney stones, dating from 12 August 1612, gives his age as fifty-eight, which would suggest a birth date of around 1554. His father lived for a period in the parish of San Geremia in Venice, so it is possible that Giovanni was born in the city. Like his uncle Andrea, he spent some time—certainly between 1575 and 1578—at the court of Duke Albrecht V in Munich, where he worked as a musician under one of the most important composers of the mid-sixteenth century, Orlande de Lassus. By 1584 Giovanni was working in Venice, as temporary second organist at St Mark’s; this appointment was made permanent from 1 January 1585 and Giovanni held it until his death.

Like many of the St Mark’s musicians, however, Giovanni also worked to provide music in other Venetian institutions as a way of supplementing his salary: on 4 August 1585 he was also appointed organist to the Scuola Grande of San Rocco, a charitable confraternity of wealthy and pious laymen, for whom he played at Mass and Vespers on a number of occasions each year, and directed the sumptuous music for the annual feast of San Rocco (St Roche) on 16 August. For this festival Mass was celebrated before the doge at the church of San Rocco and followed by music in the lavishly decorated upper room of the scuola. The 1608 celebration of St Roche’s day was described in great detail by an English traveller, Thomas Coryat, who heard the music at the scuola directed, as we now know, by Gabrieli himself. Coryat’s much-quoted account tells of there being seven organs in the room, accompanying some twenty singers and an equal number of instrumentalists, performing together in ensembles of various sizes for around three hours. His description of the effect this performance had upon him echoes the words of Stringa: the music was, he says, ‘so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super-excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like’. It is possible, then, that as many of Giovanni’s grand instrumental and vocal works were written for the Scuola Grande of San Rocco as for St Mark’s.

Although the practice of performing with cori spezzati (literally ‘fragmented choirs’) had been established at St Mark’s by Adrian Willaert, who was choirmaster from 1527 to 1562, his use of the technique was limited to setting Psalms using two four-part choirs singing alternate verses and joining together only at the end of the setting. There is some doubt, too, as to whether his two choirs were spaced apart, in two of the four opera-box-like spaces behind the choir screen (the nicchie (niches) or ‘pergole’, as they are called in various sources), or whether both choirs stood together in the large pulpit (the Bigonzo) to the right in front of the screen. It is more likely, then, that both Giovanni and Andrea Gabrieli learned their more adventurous use of multiple choirs from Lassus, who wrote just such music for Munich.

At St Mark’s cori spezzati were not scattered around the whole of the church, but grouped around the more restricted space of the chancel, where the clergy, the doge, his guests, and the Venetian nobility sat; and the sounds of singing and playing were directed inwards to the chancel, whether from the two organ galleries, from the nicchie, or from the Bigonzo. Only the most important members of the congregation, then, including the most distinguished visitors to the city, enjoyed the full effect of the ‘surround sound’ produced by the multiple ensembles. In multi-choir pieces, the choirmaster would usually direct from the Bigonzo, with a choir entirely of voices, often designated ‘cappella’ in the musical sources as in the second Kyrie of the Mass, in the Magnificat, and in the motets Exultet iam angelica turba, In ecclesiis and Omnes gentes plaudite manibus. In Exultet iam angelica turba the cappella join in only for the final joyful ‘Alleluia’s, but in In ecclesiis their interjections of ‘Alleluia’ play a structural role, punctuating the whole motet.

Singers located in the Bigonzo and the nicchie—the latter often soloists with instrumental accompaniment—could follow the choirmaster’s beat clearly enough, but it had to be relayed to more distant groups by trusted musicians like Giovanni Bassano, who would have been stationed, with his players, in one of the organ galleries. All the locations in which performers were placed were connected by passageways and stairs behind the scenes so that performers could move from one location to another as required without disturbing the course of a service.

Most of the choral works on this recording are taken from Gabrieli’s two major collections of church music, both entitled Sacrae symphoniae (‘Sacred Symphonies’); the first was published in 1597, the second in 1615 after the composer’s death. There is one exception. This is the magnificent seventeen-part setting in four choirs of Exultet iam angelica turba, a motet to accompany the lighting of the Easter candle in the early hours of Easter morning. A fourteen-part version was published in Gabrieli’s 1615 book. The seventeen-part version survives only in a manuscript in Kassel, Germany, with the three extra parts added by an unknown hand: this is designated as Choir 4, to be sung in a ‘palchetto’—as in one of the nicchie of St Mark’s.

In his mature motets, Gabrieli employs a fluid set of exchanges between the choirs, sometimes combining elements of various choirs to produce different colour combinations of voices and instruments; this is particularly true of his settings for more than eight voices. At the climax of each piece the whole ensemble is brought together, often with an extended ‘Alleluia’. Certain words also prompt full scoring: variants of the words ‘Magnus’ (great), as in Vox Domini super aquas Jordanis, or ‘omnes’ (all), as at the beginning of the great sixteen-part Omnes gentes plaudite manibus, which also includes other broad-brush word-painting—triple-time passages denoting joy, rising figures for ‘ascendit Deus’ and fanfare-like figures for the sound of the trumpets.

There are some striking differences between the settings in Gabrieli’s 1597 book and the works issued in 1615, which suggest that Gabrieli was sensitive to the changes in musical style that were taking place in the years around 1600. This can be heard very clearly if we compare the two settings of O Jesu mi dulcissime. The 1597 setting proceeds in a fairly restrained and prayerful style, varied with lively rhythms providing a climax at the end of the piece. The 1615 setting, on the other hand, begins with a declamatory line that lingers on the exclamation ‘O’, and throws away the syllables ‘Jesu mi dul–’ in short dotted rhythms, before relishing in long notes the remaining syllables of ‘dulcissime’. The first setting belongs clearly to the sixteenth century, but the second, like the languorous opening of In ecclesiis, has much more in common with the passionate declamation and highly ornamented styles found in the accompanied secular solo songs and madrigals that began to appear in print in the early years of the seventeenth century and which are also reflected in the music of Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers. The key to these changes in style is the inclusion of an independent accompanying line for the organ (basso continuo), which allowed Gabrieli to use extended solos and duets in his later settings.

The motet Vox Domini super aquas Jordanis, celebrating St John the Baptist, may have been written for the annual celebration at the great Dominican church of SS Giovanni e Paolo of the patron saint of the Florentine community in Venice. Other important religious celebrations of the year were coupled with celebrations of significant moments in the history of Venice and called for the doge to go in procession, together with members of the nobility and the choir of St Mark’s, to other churches in Venice. On the third Sunday of July each year, for example, the doge went in procession across a bridge of boats constructed across the wide Giudecca canal to give thanks at the church of the Redentore, built by the Republic as a votive offering for relief from the plague that raged in Venice from 1575 to 1577. Here the choir of St Mark’s sang motets at the Offertory and Elevation of the Mass, and it has been suggested that Gabrieli’s superb In ecclesiis might have been written for one such celebration, though the prominent use of the cappella and a magnificent six-part instrumental ‘choir’ could equally suggest an important celebration of the church of St Mark.

Processions, both round the Piazza San Marco, and to churches elsewhere in Venice often included the singing of litanies like that of the Litany of the Blessed Virgin, in which a series of petitions to the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, and to the Virgin in all her guises to ‘pray for us’ is framed by an initial Kyrie and a concluding Agnus Dei. The music used in processional litanies would have been of the simplest kind only—usually plainsong. A complex setting like Gabrieli’s for eight voices, might have been used for devotional purposes by a confraternity, or it may have been linked with the annual celebration of the victory over the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto (1571), a moment of the greatest significance in Venetian history and a victory that was attributed by Pope Pius V to the intervention of the Madonna of the Rosary; in Venice it was celebrated by the doge and choir of St Mark’s at the church of Santa Giustina.

John Whenham © 2012

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