Sony Classical Great Performances Series 82876-78762-2, 72:38 ****:
Organist E. Power Biggs got an idea while recording some of the striking Gabrieli canzonas for brass and organ that he wanted to record them in the space they were written for – the famous acoustics of the San Marco cathedral in Venice, dating from the 1100s. This tied in with the organist’s project of recording music of Bach, Mozart and others on some of the actual organs on which they had played in Europe. Well in 1967 the Venice project happened, and Producer John McClure’s notes, reprinted from the original LPs here, share with the reader the immense challenges which were involved. In setting up the confluence of singers from America, brass players from Germany, an organ from Austria and recording equipment from Switzerland, they had to be masters of bluff and brinkmanship to get around Italian customs, which he called the Macaroni Curtain.
The technical challenges of recording in the ancient church were also not easy. Some of the choruses were separated by 60 feet or more – talk about spatial music! Communication among all concerned was difficult, with three languages involved. A mix of both antique and more brass instruments was used. I no longer have it, but I believe the original Columbia LPs were quadraphonic. The restoration of the original tapes – which involved archiving in DSD format – has produced a superbly clean sound which translates via ProLogic II to sometimes startling surround effects. At several points choirs are heard behind the listener, and the huge acoustic space seems to be communicated as well as do many recent discrete hi-res recordings. Even just in the frontal area, the antiphonal effects of the different choruses and brass are thrilling.
The program consists of 28 tracks, alternating for the most part short motets in 8 or 12 parts for one, two or three choirs, with canzonas for brass and Intonations (Improvisations) for organ. While I don’t find early choral polyphony among my favorite genres of music, I have always been completely captivated by the Gabrielis. Reading these notes I was reminded why. Venice was the richest city in Europe at the time, and these compositions were for secular, state occasions as much as for religious. With a more vertical, chordal style than Flemish polyphony, and accompanied with greater instrumental backing, these were much more show-offy, dramatic works. They were designed to produce a feeling of awe, but often one more secular in nature.
– John Sunier