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This section is dedicated to the examination of performance practice of Gabrieli's works. I can think of no composer whose name is more synonymous with performance practice than Giovanni Gabrieli. It is hard to think about his music without imagining how it was played in the various organ lofts in San Marco. The antiphonal nature of the music makes it almost impossible to resist the temptation to try to recreate the sonority of San Marco in some way when performing it. There was no iTunes or YouTube in Gabrieli's day, of course, so we'll have to rely on written documentation of original performances (see my essay in the previous section for more information), but we are fortunate today to have many musicians performing Gabrieli's works and making audio and video recordings for us to study and enjoy.

 

The first video is of the Orchestra of the 17th Century performing Gabrieli's Canzona noni toni a 12, along with some lovely images of instruments for which the music was originally written and of San Marco. Throughout the rest of this section are recordings of various different ensembles, along with my comments comparing them. While the differences in these recordings will usually be obvious, they all have one thing in common: a love for Gabrieli's music and a desire to create musically faithful performances. They just go about it in very different ways--some concentrate on reproductions of the instruments used in Gabrieli's day, some focus on reproducing the antiphonal sound through recording practices, and some try to incorporate stylistic characteristics of period instrument performances into their modern instrument performances. As you browse these clips, you'll see what I mean--enjoy!

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This recording of Canzon duodecimi toni (click on the reel icon at right to listen), made in 1968 by the combined brass sections of the Chicago Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra and Cleveland Orchestra is, for most modern American brass players, the standard by which all others are judged. It was recorded in a recording studio, but attempted to recreate the sound of musicians placed in various locations stereophonically: each choir was placed in a different stereo channel. This is indicated in the program notes: "Because you literally 'can't tell the players without a score card', we have provided one. This chart indicates the instrumentation of each piece, which groups are performing, and where they are located stereophonically." What follows is an elaborate chart listing each piece and each player's name and with which choir they are playing and in which stereo channel you can hear them.

As far as I know, this was the first recorded attempt at recreating the distinctive antiphonal sound of Gabrieli's music. It is a recording you will find in most brass players' libraries. Here are some quotes from the liner notes showing how important this recording has been to brass players over the years:

"This recording is the most inspiring example of Gabrieli's music and one that is, in my opinion, impossible to duplicate."

-Harvey Phillips
Distinguished Professor Emeritus
Indiana University School of Music

 "I have worn out the two vinyl discs I own of this recording. After all these years, it is still the standard by which I judge all the other Gabrieli records that have been made to date, including the two I participated in."

 

-Warren Deck

[Former] Principal Tuba, New York Philharmonic

Upon listening to this sample, it is indeed an impressive recording, focusing largely on recreating the grandiosity of Gabrieli's music. Not having a performance space as live as St. Mark's, they were not able to rely on the acoustics to help with this. There is obviously some reverb added to the recording, but nothing like the natural sound of St. Mark's. While there is some lightening of the texture in some of the sections, the overall impression is of very the "muscular" playing of orchestral players trained to aim their sounds to the back of a large concert hall and, of course, using large bore instruments.

This is not to denigrate the quality of the recording; in fact it is still one of my favorite recordings in my CD library. It was, and still is, a stunning example of brilliant brass playing and musicianship. It was, however, made before good reproductions of original instruments were easily obtained and performances on these instruments were common practice. In short, it was the best attempt at reproducing Gabrieli's music possible at the time.

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This recording, which, incidentally, is the one discussed in the favorable review I quoted in my essay, was made in 1990 at St. John at Hackney in London by Andrew Parrott and the Taverner Consort. The Sonata pian e forte is performed at a noticeably more somber tempo than the previous two recordings discussed, which I find very relaxing and comforting, as if the musicians are taking their time. It is a period instrument recording which clearly intends to come as close as possible to the sound Gabrieli would have heard. What I notice most about this is how much emphasis there is on the dark timbre of the lower instruments, mostly trombones. This one of the works in which Gabrieli was very specific about instrumentation: a cornetto and three trombones in the first choir and a violino and three trombones in the second choir. (Kenton 488) This large number of trombones indeed gives the piece a somber feeling. There is obvious dynamic contrast, but on a smaller scale that the modern instrument recordings. This is due to the limits of the smaller instruments, but is probably much closer to the type of contrast Gabrieli imagined.

 

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Canzon primi toni a 10

London Symphony Orchestra Brass, Eric Crees

 

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Jubilate Deo

Canadian Brass and The Berlin Philharmonic Brass

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O magnum mysterium

King's College Choir Cambridge,

Philip Jones Brass Ensemble

Stephen Cleobury

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