MUSIC / Anyone for Venice?: Tess Knighton on an early music Prom

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The Independent Culture
LAST WEEK saw the first of the 'early music' concerts at this year's Proms, a bold and colourful programme from the Gabrieli Consort and Players under the direction of Paul McCreesh. It proved again that judiciously chosen repertory with forces to match can make for as exciting a sound in the Royal Albert Hall as a symphony orchestra. The ceremonial music of late Renaissance Venice was designed to be impressive, and the spirit of it, a unique blend of solemnity and exuberance, of reverence and sensuality, was well suited to the festive sense of occasion at the heart of the Proms.

It was also well conveyed by the vast (in early-music terms at least) array of singers and instrumentalists who moved around the stage to recreate a feel for the exploitation of space that was integral to the music in its original setting: the great basilica of St Mark's.

The core of the programme was a partial reconstruction of a Mass held for the coronation of the Doge in April 1595. McCreesh has been a staunch advocate of such attempts to place the surviving concerted pieces of sacred music in a larger musical context. Experience, however, has made him more pragmatic about what can and cannot be achieved in the concert hall, and on this occasion, certain parts of the Mass were, wisely I think, omitted. I would also have left out the ringing of the bell before the Elevation, but otherwise the ceremonial aspect was convincingly achieved by simple but inspired use of the space: the chanted procession at the beginning, the positioning of the four organs on the stage and the sound of the trumpets and drums moving around the circumference of the hall.

The performances of music by Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli were equally impressive. McCreesh had the courage to maintain slowish tempi which allowed the full impact of the contrasts of sonority to be favoured and added to the sense of grandeur in Andrea Gabrieli's setting of the movements of the Ordinary of the Mass for four choirs of voices and instruments.

Ensemble was occasionally stretched by the physical separation of the performance on stage, but the climaxes, notably in the final Alleluia of Giovanni Gabrieli's offertory Deus qui beatum Marcum and his punchy setting of Psalm 46, Omnes gentes, here used as a recessional motet, were hair- raising. There is nothing more exhilarating than the sound of massed sackbuts at full tilt, here in a perfect realisation of the words of the psalmist himself: 'The Lord is gone up to the sound of the trumpets.' There was particularly fine playing, too, from the violinist Florian Deuter and the cornettist Jeremy West in a lavish display of virtuosity in Gabrieli's ninth canzona.

The singers of the Gabrieli Consort and Choir gave their all, both in the reconstructed Mass and the Venetian-inspired settings of the psalms by Schutz in the first half of the programme. The large and enthusiastic audience clamoured for more: more Gabrieli, more Schutz and, I would like to think, more Proms of this kind.