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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 (again, click the icon at right) was made in 1988 by the Empire Brass and Friends. The "Friends" were mostly Boston Symphony Orchestra musicians and Boston area free-lancers. It is interesting that Harvey Phillips noted that the 1968 Philadelphia/Cleveland/Chicago Brass recording would be impossible to duplicate because this recording obviously aims to do just that. While there is quite a bit of variation in selection, the liner notes include a "score card" that is almost identical to the earlier recording. It was recorded at the Berkshire Performing Arts Center, which is actually a gym with very special acoustic properties (I've been there to witness another Empire Brass recording), and also attempts to recreate the Gabrieli sound stereophonically. This later recording is clearly an "homage" to the legendary 1968 performance.

 

This performance of Canzon duodecimi toni also focuses largely on grandiosity. The full, loud sections are at least as loud and "orchestral-sounding" as the previous recording, but in the softer, lighter sections, the musicians clearly concentrate on lightness and clarity of articulation, which is particularly noticeable in the dance rhythms and florid runs. By 1988, quality period instrument performances and recordings had begun to appear, but were by no means standard practice. When listening to this recording, I can't help but feel that Empire Brass and their "Friends" were aware of the emerging period instrument movement and tried to incorporate some of the stylistic attributes, but nonetheless had the older recording in their ears.

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This performance of Sonata pian e forte is also from the 1968 collaboration of the Philadelphia, Cleveland and Chicago Brass Sections. This arrangement uses nine brass players: two trumpets, two horns, three trombones, a euphonium and a tuba. It is taken at a considerably slower tempo than the previous recording discussed, uses more doubling of the bass line, and takes the forte sections very literally, often to an extreme (a 1968 orchestral forte as opposed to a 1597 Basilica San Marco forte).

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This recording of Canzon primi toni a 10, made by members of the London Symphony Orchestra Brass section under the direction of Eric Crees at London's All Hallows Church in 2001, to me, represents the most authentic of the modern instrument recordings. Only trumpets and trombones are used, and the musicians take a much lighter approach to the music, particularly in terms of dynamics and articulation. They are obviously aware of the many fine period instrument performances today and seem to be striving to keep authenticity in mind, even as they use their larger, modern instruments. It is as if they know that the music will be grand-sounding simply due to the forces used, size of their instruments and size of the performance space--they don't have to work hard to make it sound grand, they just have to play beautiful music in a singing manner. I love their approach!

 

The main difference between this and the recording of His magestys Sagbutts and Cornetts is tempo. The LSO players are considerably more brisk.

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The Canadian Brass and Berlin Philharmonic Brass obviously take an approach to their recording of Jubilate Deo that is more purely instrumental.  This is evident in the more forceful, shorter articulations and quicker tempo, both of which give the piece a much less expansive feeling than the previous recording.  It is still enjoyable listening and the musicians seem to be aware of the vocal nature of the piece in terms of phrasing, but it ultimately sounds a bit like how brass players would play a vocal piece in order to make it sound like a brass piece.

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I have no comparison for this clip, but it being the Holidays, I thought I'd include this beautiful recording of O magnum mysterium. It was made by King's College Choir and the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble with Stephen Cleobury in King's College Chapel in 1986, and again is a gorgeous display of the intermingling of vocal and brass choirs in Gabrieli's writing.

 

Incidentally, I performed this piece at a Christmas service in a beautiful Church in Jacksonville, FL a few years ago. The vocal choir was up front near the pulpit and we brass players were in the balcony at the back of the church. It was a challenge keeping it all together since the acoustics were incredibly live, but ultimately it was a memorable and inspiring moment for all performers involved.

 

Merry Christmas!

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