Venice preserved

Why does the city of Monteverdi and Vivaldi need the British to organise a music festival?
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The Independent Culture

Although the conclusions of the Second Vatican Council did much to reconcile the Roman Catholic Church with the modern world, they were also an unmitigated disaster for the cause of church music. The decision to abandon the use of Latin, rearrange the liturgy and exclude even sung Latin from the regular celebration of the Mass destroyed within a few years much of a living tradition of more than a thousand years.

Although the conclusions of the Second Vatican Council did much to reconcile the Roman Catholic Church with the modern world, they were also an unmitigated disaster for the cause of church music. The decision to abandon the use of Latin, rearrange the liturgy and exclude even sung Latin from the regular celebration of the Mass destroyed within a few years much of a living tradition of more than a thousand years.

The various attempts since then in Italy to revive the extraordinary riches of early sacred music in particular have suffered from the competition offered by the national passion for opera, whose glamour scoops the pool for talented singers, public subsidy and critical attention. Thus although the Cathedral of St Mark's in Venice retains a choir led by musicians in direct succession to Monteverdi and Gabrieli, it is sadly insufficient to the task of performing the works of their predecessors.

Venice was once one of the great European musical capitals, a city whose leaders recognised the power of cultural prestige and took care to attract and encourage composers of the calibre of Monteverdi and Vivaldi. It became a centre whose excellence in performance at its churches and the famous foundling hospitals which trained musicians made it a site of pilgrimage.

The effect of decades of mass tourism in recent years has been to diminish the quality and range of concerts. For much of the year, the music on offer in Venice's superb range of musical venues - churches, scuola, palazzi salons - is too often characterised by Vivaldi's The Four Seasons, indifferently played, in original costume by candlelight.

For all these reasons, last week's triumphant success of the second Festival of Music in Venice, organised by the firm of Martin Randall, who specialise in art historical and musical travel, is a cheerful sign for the city's musical future. In eight first-rate concerts over five days, the festival covered 1,000 years of music from the eighth century until the middle of the 18th. At the heart of the series were three performances by the Gabrieli Consort and Players, conducted by Paul McCreesh.

The first was held in Palladio's church of Il Redentore and was a reconstruction of the Mass of Thanksgiving for the relief from plague, written by Monteverdi and his contemporaries and first heard in the Church of Santa Maria della Salute in 1631. Blowing trumpets in church is so impressive that it's surprising it's not done more often. From the introductory fanfare by natural trumpets to their final recessional blast, McCreesh and his players brought a dramatic passion to the musicological scholarship of restoration.

The following evening, in the gorgeous Byzantine gold of St Mark's, they performed a Christmas Mass by Gabrieli and his early 16th-century predecessor Cipriano de Rore as it might have been heard around the year 1600. McCreesh and his musicians have made such revivals their stock in trade in concert-halls and on disc, but the effect in the setting intended was overwhelming: Gabrieli's canzonas, sonatas and motets for cornetts, sackbutts, strings and voices blazing in sumptuous contrast to the austerity of chant and Di Rore's Ordinary of the Mass.

The next afternoon, the Gabrieli Consort and Players performed Monteverdi's dramatic cantata Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda in the hall of the elaborate and Veronese-decorated Ateneo Veneto. This startlingly original work sets part of Tasso's Renaissance blockbuster Gerusalemme liberata, dealing with the fatal duel between two disguised lovers on opposing armies, Christian and pagan. In an effective semi-staging by Paul Alexander, the protagonists, Julian Podger and Carys Lane, and particularly the narrator Mark Tucker, gave moving accounts of war, love and reconciliation.

The festival's opening concert had been given by La Reverdie, a group of four young Italian women, both singers and players of archaic instruments, devoted to the painstaking rediscovery and passionate performance of early music. The sweet and heartlifting effect of the Renaissance interior of Santa Maria dei Miracoli was matched by their fresh songs and sounds from AD800 to the end of the 14th century.

The final concert was a startling rediscovery, too. The young British original instrument ensemble, La Serenissima, founded and led by Adrian Chandler, concerns itself with the works of Vivaldi and his peers. The first half of the evening, held in the vast, richly decorated hall of Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista, comprised two Vivaldi concerti, for violin and flute respectively, and his Laudate Pueri, sung with an effortless virtuosity by the soprano Mhairi Lawson.

The second half rather slyly took Vivaldi's The Four Seasons, that ubiquitous Big Mac of the classical repertoire, and with energy and intelligence revealed a dark, compelling, almost sinister work beneath the bland, overplayed cliché. Like the sight of the newly restored Giovanni Bellinis in the Accademia, both the surprise and the pleasure were startling.

 

For details of future Music Festivals organised by Martin Randall Travel (which include Prague next year and Rome in 2002) call 020-8742 3355. Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort and Players will be touring British festivals with Monteverdi's Mass of Thanksgiving next year, including Bath (23 May). BBC Radio 3 will broadcast their performance of Monteverdi's 'Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda' on 7 Dec

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