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!
This performance of Canzon duodecimi toni, by the Washington Cornett and Sackbutt Ensemble, obviously attempts to create a performance more faithful to the original by using period instruments. Unlike the previous two examples, there are no modern instruments or instruments unavailable to Gabrieli (like the tubas and French horns used in the other recordings). This results in a much lighter, clearer, more homogeneous sound than the recordings on modern instruments. I'm not sure where this recording was made, but it's likely to be a live recording at a performance in a church. The performers still seem to be striving for a "grandiose" sound, but allow the natural acoustics to provide much of it since the instruments were not designed to create the size of sound that, say, a modern tuba could. This brings up the idea that our concept of what exactly constitutes "grandiosity" seems to have expanded with the advent of larger modern instruments. If performances of Gabrieli's music were perceived to have been grand in his day, how would our modern instrument performances of today be perceived?
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.
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.