CLASSICAL: The sackbutt shall sound!

Gabrieli Consort/ McCreesh Christ Church, Spitalfields LONDON Orchestre National de Lyon/Gilbert Royal Festival Hall LONDON Philharmonia/Muti/Repin Royal Festival Hall LONDON

Despite their common histories of silk, spice and commerce, Venice and Spitalfields are not easily to be confused. The passing sounds of vaporetti and London taxis are as unalike as the mosaiced labyrinth of St Mark's and the frigid geometry of Nicholas Hawksmoor's Christ Church. But something strange happened in Spitalfields on Tuesday night. As the traffic hurtled past, Paul McCreesh and The Gabrieli Consort transformed the dull drizzle of Commercial Street into the pale brilliance of the Piazza San Marco, with a bright-toned choir of male voices, an orchestra of trumpets, cornetts and sackbutts, a dulcian, a violin, a viola, a drum and two organs tuned to a particularly al dente meantone. The year? 1595. Give or take the odd toccata.

Does this ring any bells? It might. The Gabrieli Consort made its name with A Venetian Coronation; confirming, if not setting, a musicological trend that continues to this day. Now not a month goes by without some scholarly extrapolation of what might have been performed in Seville or Mantua or Lubeck on whichever feast day in 1492 or 1671 or 1723. For an audience, the appeal of this elaborate historical contextualisation is obvious. Close your eyes and it's close to time travel. For Europe's early music specialists, however, the immense popularity of reconstructions has meant 15 years of singing processional plainchant in pot-holed car- parks, and reams of hastily signed insurance waivers while climbing up to condemned organ-lofts for that all-important surround-sound effect.

Strap a pedometer to the plumpest natural trumpeter and you might be surprised by the results. In polychoral music, it's no pain, no gain. Trouble is, the majority of reconstructions blur into one big blob of off-the-peg "authenticity". Set aside location-specific details of decoration or temperament and you could be anywhere; passively basking in gee-whizz history like one of Duane Hanson's silicon tourists. What distinguishes this 1990 reconstruction of the coronation of Doge Marino Grimani from dozens of similar projects is simple: the intense beauty of the mass, motets, intonazione and canzone of Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli and their contemporaries. Yes, Christ Church has too severe an acoustic for this rich, organic repertoire, and the instrumentalists of The Gabrieli Consort expended several thousand calories darting back and forth between its nave and galleries. But the music was centre-stage, regardless of which direction - or year - it came from.

Not having a time-travelling machine, I have no idea whether these were exactly the right speeds, forces or registrations for Grimani's coronation. San Marco is thought to have used up to eight locations in this repertoire. In Spitalfields, if you count the steps outside, there were six. But the taut blend of The Gabrieli Consort's altos and high tenors gives a point- blank kick to this music, forcing the listener to engage. Picturing the vast congregation of Venetian dignitaries was easy, picking one highlight impossible. From the blunt, martial strut of Cesare Bendinelli's Sonata 333, to the exquisite violin and cornett divisions of Giovanni Gabrieli's Canzona IX a 10, the sunburst of the same composer's Deus qui beatum Marcum, the psychedelic carousel of Cesario Gussago's Sonata La Leona, the sweet simplicity of Simon Wall's intonation of the Evangelium, the high-octane hit of Omnes gentes, and the burnished, bass-heavy solemnity of Andrea Gabrieli's stile antico motet O sacrum convivium, this 15 year-old programme sounded brand new. Which, of course, it would have been in 1595. A glorious and exciting event; played marvellously by the brass, keyboards and lone fiddle, directed with character and drive by McCreesh, and sung beautifully by the choir and soloists.

As a rule, I relish performances that, like A Venetian Coronation, suggest that anything might happen. But there's a massive difference between nail- biting brinkmanship and a performance where you realise that anything might happen except a clean entry. Having seen Alan Gilbert conduct several other orchestras, I'm reluctant to hold him responsible for the Orchestre National de Lyon's shambolic account of Mahler's Seventh Symphony on Monday. Gilbert is a capable conductor whose worst fault is to flex his machismo through barely audible pianissimi. My honest opinion is that he gave his orchestra every opportunity to play on his beat and that they simply bit off more than they could chew in touring this most technically demanding work to a city with three significantly superior resident orchestras. Cracked notes from the horns are forgivable in Mahler but it would have been nice had they happened at roughly the same time as those of the woodwind, or had the upper strings played in the same tempo as the lower. In easier repertoire, the Orchestre National de Lyon may play splendidly. Here, they did not.

Which made my memory of the ever-glamourous Riccardo Muti's second performance of Schubert's Ninth Symphony and Beethoven's Violin Concerto with the Philharmonia all the more delectable. Having brought in new players, the Philharmonia's rosy blend is irresistible; their articulation - on which Muti made some unusual demands - excellent. Vadim Repin's elegant, understated Beethoven was somewhat overshadowed by Muti's elegant, overstated Beethoven: an idiosyncratic affair that would pause every few bars or so as if to point out a particularly interesting shift in the scoring. It was quite the longest account of this concerto I've heard - a series of ravishing vignettes rather than one argument - but fascinating all the same. The Schubert, by contrast, was brisk.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

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