Christmas Vespers, St John's, Smith Square, London <!-- none onestar twostar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

With the BBC's current glorification of northern Europe's greatest Baroque composer, J S Bach, a timely reminder of the greatness of Venice a century earlier was posited in I Fagiolini and the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble's concert, as part of Hazard Chase's annual Christmas Festival, now in its 20th year. I Fagiolini were back, having sold out last year. And they did it again, with not a spare seat to be seen.

We were promised "a reconstruction from c1635" of a Christmas vespers in St Mark's, Venice. The programme note was mouth-watering: "a city of splendour and luxury, serene and wealthy... a city of magnificent public events, revelling in a ceaseless stream of ceremonial pomp and ostentatious display", with St Mark's at its centre. The build-up was palpable but St John's just ain't St Mark's. Or rather, Robert Hollingworth, the director, did so little to capture what makes St Mark's so great for music, - the acoustic setting.

The programme was devised around settings by Monteverdi of five psalms: Psalm 109 - Dixit Dominus; 110 - Confitebor tibi; 111- Beatus vir; 112 - Laudate pueri; and 116 - Laudate Dominum. Dixit Dominus - almost a Renaissance "pop-single" in Monteverdi's setting - should ricochet around the building, those marvellous cornetts (sounding a bit like trumpets) and sackbuts (early trombones) awesome and momentous. But Hollingworth had them non-spatially separated - just strung out in a line. It produced a pathetic punch.

In "Quem vidistis pastores", a setting by Giovanni Gabrieli, singers and instrumentalists were at last separated - between floor and balcony, no daring placing next to the great organ at the back. This proved the highlight of the evening, soloists facing each other up high, while on the ground the warmth of the sackbuts, tinkling of the theorbo and chromatic colouring of the words was quite wonderful.

Antiphons sung by Edington Schola Cantorum provided an austere harmonic context to the richly coloured psalm settings. Their voices were well balanced, better than those of I Fagiolini, whose male soprano hooted and was almost invariably too loud. Not Venice at its greatest.

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