Summary for the Busy Executive: A great noise.
More from Sony's "Great Performances" collection. It culls tracks from a three-volume series. I must admit that I've never caught much of the Sonic Spectacular bug, but my friends who had would use the original LP as a test piece when they bought new hi-fi equipment. I bought the LP because of the repertoire, which sounds a bit like saying I bought Playboy for the articles.
An immensely popular recording, The Glory of Gabrieli grew out of, essentially, an indulgence granted by Columbia to their star organist, E. Power Biggs. Biggs, a player whose star has somewhat faded, had a bug in his ear about recording music in the churches and on the instruments it was written for or on which the composer had played. My single favorite part of the series was an album dedicated to Bach on the Lübeck organ. After a successful conclusion to the series (including at least one very profitable gift edition), Biggs expressed the hope to record the music of Gabrieli in the Cathedral San Marco. I don't think anyone expected to make a lot of money, and they put themselves through a heap of trouble. After all, San Marco is in Venice, notoriously inaccessible to modern transport. Columbia's Italian staff determined, among other things, that a new organ would have to be installed. The Italian bureaucracy, sacred and secular, had to be tickled, and ensembles from at least three different countries had to be flown in. But eventually all the rough places were made plain, and the recording sessions took place. One can't imagine a recording company going through all that today.
At the time, I bought all three albums, but then any Gabrieli recording was rarer than it is today. The sessions took place at a time when HIP was in its infancy, but some concessions were made. Sometimes the instruments were cornetti, sackbuts, and serpents; sometimes, the modern valved instruments. As legendary producer John McClure put it, "Some pieces sounded very beautiful on the zinks and old trombones, while some needed the extra power and brilliance that would set the basilica's acoustics ringing." He added, "Being doctrinaire in this matter is often self-defeating, we have found." However, we should remember that the art of playing Renaissance instruments has risen considerably since that time. The Edward Tarr Brass (a German ensemble, despite the name) was then one of the few groups with expertise in both types of brass, old and new. Certainly, today's producers would meet at least some of these challenges differently.
Was it all worth it? Consider that many of these pieces stand among the earliest whose composers specified the instrumentation. Before then, you mainly got only choral parts. Instrumentation which doubled these was probably whatever handy had the necessary range. Also, Gabrieli designed the music for the specific space of San Marco, with its various separated choir lofts and its six-to-eight-second reverberation. Granted, no recording will identically reproduce the effect of actually being in that space. But when I heard the first full forte, all my critical thinking washed away in the magnificence of the sound. It may be music more suitable to singing the praises of the earthly king than of the heavenly one, but not even Hollywood has caught its sturdy splendor. Indeed, Hollywood almost always goes so over the top that you can take refuge in mockery. Gabrieli, on the other hand, always knows where the top lies. Glory indeed.
After all those years, the rawness of the singing and playing struck me the most, not so much in the quieter numbers, but in the full-out, knock-you-on-your-tail parts. I hadn't noticed that before, and very likely what I've heard since then, so much more musically penetrating, has given rise to that impression. On the other hand, keeping all those forces, separated by so many yards in the cathedral, anywhere close to rhythmically together must have constituted quite a feat. You can hear a slight raggedness now and again, but generally speaking everything is as snug as a kid in his blankie. That may have also sacrificed refinement.
Still, this is not a disc – or music, for that matter – for those who must have subtlety. For a simpler soul like me, this music will thrill your body, if not your mind. The rest of you can read The New York Review of Books.
Copyright © 2008, Steve Schwartz