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 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."
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."
[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.
In this recording of Sonata pian e forte, the Canadian Brass joins forces with five members of the Berlin Philharmonic brass section to form a double brass quintet. The recording was made in 1984 at Jesus Christus Kirche in Berlin. What strikes me as interesting about this performance is how briskly it moves along compared to other recordings. There's a kind of crispness, both in speed and articulation, not found in the other recordings presented here. Also, the Sonata pian e forte was written for eight players and here they use ten, witch includes two tubas. This initially sounds like it would be very inauthentic, but when you consider that Gabrieli often had an organ double the bass of each choir, maybe using tubas is a reasonable simulation of this added weight. A key feature of this piece is the fact that it was among the earliest to use dynamic indications in the music. This recording clearly observes those markings, without over-blowing the forte sections. They seem to be allowing the acoustics of the church to project their sounds, instead of their own muscularity.
This recording of Canzon primi toni a 10 was made in 1997 by Timothy Roberts and His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts. It is a fabulous period instrument recording that also includes a violino, which contributes to a lighter sound. Gabrieli was not always specific in his instrumentation (though more often so than was the custom at the time), but we know that violinos were sometimes used. (Kenton 490)
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.
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.