Christmas comes early to a watery city

The Festival of Music in Venice
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The Independent Culture

As music festivals go, the Festival of Music in Venice was as close to time-travelling as you can get. This year's programme focused on the first half of the 17th century, with day-trip excursions into the 18th century and back into the Renaissance. A week of music from one period might sound a bit much, but close focus has its rewards; different forms and styles of music that usually get filed into one large, prettily decorated drawer marked "Baroque" become more distinct, more varied and more complex. It's like regaining your sense of taste after a heavy cold. Stylistic shifts of a mere decade suddenly seem radical. In the right context - and the concerts take place in the kind of buildings the music was designed for - the difference between Monteverdi's stile antico and stile moderno is as sharp as that between funk and punk.

As music festivals go, the Festival of Music in Venice was as close to time-travelling as you can get. This year's programme focused on the first half of the 17th century, with day-trip excursions into the 18th century and back into the Renaissance. A week of music from one period might sound a bit much, but close focus has its rewards; different forms and styles of music that usually get filed into one large, prettily decorated drawer marked "Baroque" become more distinct, more varied and more complex. It's like regaining your sense of taste after a heavy cold. Stylistic shifts of a mere decade suddenly seem radical. In the right context - and the concerts take place in the kind of buildings the music was designed for - the difference between Monteverdi's stile antico and stile moderno is as sharp as that between funk and punk.

And if that sounds too trainspottery, the most exciting side-effect of this immersion is to lift Venice from its customary role as a crumbling memorial and make it seem as it must have to the travellers who first heard these works - vibrant, bustling, powerful, creative, diverse, alive: the Manhattan of the 17th century. Like the original musica da camera gatherings in the painted, mirrored, marbled rooms of the palazzi, the festival is a privileged, private affair. The audience is a captive one, having signed up for the week. Most venues are not normally used for public concerts, some are not normally even open at all, so this is also an opportunity to see some of the most beautiful and lavish interiors in the city.

Richness is everywhere in Venetian music; from the material richness of a society that could afford to import the finest European musicians of its day, to the richness of imagination in the allegories that form the basis of the secular music, and the richness of the instrumental and vocal timbre of the religious music created for the city's countless churches. Three of the eight concerts explored religious repertoire, but unsurprisingly it was Cipriano de Rore's solemn but ecstatic seven-part Christmas Mass of c1600 in the Basilica di San Marco - the church it was composed for - that had the greatest impact.

We've all seen engravings where periwigged musicians lean in to the picture like a bunch of schoolkids in a photobooth but I'd never seen it done live before. The 14 male singers of the Gabrieli Consort were crammed authentically into the bigonzo - literally a large wooden tub - an octagonal pulpit in which the original singers of St Mark's had stood 400 years before. It may seem daft to push a number of singers into a tub, like so many butchers and bakers and candlestick-makers, but it had the most extraordinary acoustic effect; a reduction and intensification of the vocal sound into a strong, amber core. The slow unfurling of de Rore's polyphony floated up from the tub into the golden arches and domes of St Mark's and a slow-mo aural ricochet occurred - not obscuring individual lines of sound but enriching them, amplifying them and blending them. Bright counter-tenor mixed with light high-tenor, creamy baritone mixed with grainy bass. It was the most unusual choral sound - dark, clear and almost too sweet - and quite perfectly offset by the strong liturgical chanting, Giovanni Gabrieli's brittle canzonas for violin, cornetts and sackbutts, and the brilliant antiphonal motets for choirs of solo voices and mixed instruments.

Secular imagery was displayed in the programme of the stylish Treviso-based string septet, I Sonatori de la Gioiosa Marca, in the Palazzo Zenobio. They gave a tightly percussive account of dances by Merula and Marini and a very lively version of Farina's Cappriccio Stravagante - a 17th-century Old Macdonald had a Farm for strings. But the dampness in the building (this was aqua alta season) and the odd heating system played havoc with their tuning and the continuo section lost control of their wayward gut strings - and if you've ever struggled with wavy hair in wet weather you'll know exactly what I mean.

In the Gabrieli Consort's semi-staged Monteverdi programme it was an entirely different style; a stark, angry, bleak and lyrical series of responses to Tasso's dramatic scena of the duel between Tancredi (Julian Podger) and Clorinda (Carys Lane). The words "semi" and "staged" usually signal alarm but Mark Tucker's (sung) narration of this extended accompanied madrigal was a model of immediate communication. And in a festival largely dominated by foreign artists, Tucker's Venetian background and impeccably idiomatic singing was a welcome injection of authenticity.

It was clear from the first words of Tempro la cetra that the emotions elicited in the intimacy of the Ateneo Veneto would be strong ones. In James Alexander's intelligent, bold and economical staging of the Combattimento, the narrator creates the protagonists, moves them like puppets, masks them and arms them for battle - in this case with bows for swords, a violin for a shield and a cello for Tancredi's horse. It was uncomfortable viewing in absolutely the right way; Tucker moved through the audience, seemingly addressing each one directly with his searing tenor voice and alarmingly bright eyes, the artifice of baroque gestural language made natural through his physical fluency. Shredded petals of black paper dropped softly from his hands as night fell on the duelling lovers, bare fifths were plucked from the harp and theorbos, and in a footsore, damp and excited audience the dramatic tension was so intense you could have cut the air with a knife. By the time Clorinda sang her last - a scarlet ribbon uncurling from her breast to represent the mortal wound inflicted by Tancredi - and the strings and continuo slowly resolved the final sweet suspension, several people were in tears.

A festival of Venetian music without Vivaldi is about as likely as a soap opera where sexually active teenagers take precautions, but La Serenissima's energetic Four Seasons in the palatial hall of the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista was far from predictable. Violinist Adrian Chandler is on a mission to prove that Vivaldi is more than sedately gracious background music and on the basis of this concert he will succeed. He led his group deftly through two of Vivaldi's 400 or so other concerti and the coloratura-a-go-go solo motet Laudate Pueri before delivering a Four Seasons that was so bouncily eager to entertain, impress, astonish and delight that it only just stopped short of bringing on the dancing girls.

It's just as well that La Serenissima is a young group - Chandler is only 24 - for with speeds that fast you'd have to be fit to keep up. (I must be getting old for I would have quite liked to hear at least one movement of one of the four seasons in which nothing much happened.) Still, Chandler's imaginative direction was hugely enjoyable - vividly painting the capricious Venetian microclimate and the drunken roistering of the farmers of the Veneto - and his puppyish energy was smartly brought to heel in the flute concerto by Katy Bircher's elegant playing. But the highlight of the concert for me had to be Mhairi Lawson's laser-bright top Ds in the motet - the kind of clear and brilliant notes that pin you to your seat, knock your hat off and then blow you a kiss afterwards - and the strangest thing about it was that after a week of Monteverdi, authentic gut-string Vivaldi seemed as modern as Mozart.

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