1615 Gabrieli in Venice

The Choir of King’s College Cambridge, His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts, Stephen Cleobury
73:10
KGS0012 (SACD + Pure Audio Blu-ray disc)
Exultavit cor meum, Hodie completi sunt, In ecclesiis, Iubilate Deo, Litaniæ Beatæ Mariæ Virginis, Magnificat, Quem vidistis pastores, Surrexit Christus & Suscipe clementissime Deus
Canzona Prima, Seconda & Terza

I approached this CD, recorded using the latest recording technology and available on two discs for SACD hybrid and blu-ray respectively, with very high hopes. One of my earliest encounters with the music of this period was precisely with the music of Gabrieli and indeed included much of the music on this disc. My first reaction was to admire the crystal clear sound which captures the spacious ambience of King’s College Chapel to perfection and gives the music a splendid grandeur. It was not long however before I was much more bothered than I had anticipated by the fact that the choir with its boy trebles was simply not the vocal sound for which this music conceived. Worse than that, much of the singing had an English politeness about it which seemed to me to emasculate Gabrieli’s highly dramatic idiom. In the couple of pieces where the choir was encouraged to be more flamboyant, such as Iubilate Deo, parts of the 14-part Magnificat and Hugh Keyte’s magnificent re-realisation of Quem vidistis, the singers produce a degree of excitement, but the rather mimsy In ecclesiis  which opens the disc and the unconvincing Suscipe clementissime Deus  with its less than magnificent account of the composer’s towering setting of ‘immensae maiestati’ are ultimately disappointing.

The solo voices are also patchy, not apparently sharing the same concepts of how Gabrieli should sound, and there were some contrapuntal guddles caused undoubtedly by the spacing of the forces. His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts provide fine accounts of Gabrieli’s instrumental canzonas and sonatas between the larger choral items, but even they sound cowed in some of the choral works. Any foray into this repertoire invites comparison with the work of specialist period ensembles such as Paul McCreesh’s Gabrieli Consort and Players and if, like me, you prefer your Gabrieli to be brash and thrilling you will always go for the sound of soaring falsettists and blaring brass rather than these rather diffident accounts. Although the programme note declares the recording to be ‘the culmination of considerable scholarship into the performance practice of Gabrieli’s Venice’, with the noble exception of Hugh Keyte’s cutting-edge and valuable contribution (published 2015 by The Early Music Company), there seems nothing terribly radical here, and indeed ironically many of the editions used date from the 1990s and one indeed is from Denis Arnold’s 1962 CMM, the very edition used for the 1967 recording which so inspired me as a child!

D. James Ross