Picture Credit: Frances Marshall

Pomp and circumstance

A Venetian Coronation, The Gabrieli Consort, St John’s Smith Square

On Music

It starts with bells pealing, distant behind the foreground thrum of people gathering. Bright, nasal cornetts follow, drums beating out a solemn tattoo for a procession, and are those fireworks in the background? 

My parents didn’t know it, but I first visited Venice age 10. I may have been sitting on my bedroom floor, headphones in, but the Gabrieli Consort took me to St Mark’s Square, where I was jostled among the crowds and wafted with incense, swept along out of the sunshine and into the Basilica. 

A reedy chamber-organ was coaxed into wriggling brilliance

An “immersive” musical experience long before even the biggest pseud would have dreamt of calling it that, A Venetian Coronation 1595 was a gamechanger when it was released in 1990 — a recording that moved early music out of the museum and into the flow of life.  A speculative recreation of the coronation of Doge Marino Grimani, it was music as cinema: a sonic camera panning across gilded galleries and heaving piazza, taking in the combined pomp of sacred and civic authority. 

The recording was such a touchstone that Paul McCreesh and his musicians re-recorded it in 2012, using new technology and scholarship to take us even closer in. But even the best technology can’t match the live concert experience, can it? With A Venetian Coronation taking over St John’s Smith Square for the opening performance of this year’s London Festival of Baroque Music, it was a chance to find out.

First to state the obvious: St John’s is no St Mark’s. The church’s neat proportions, obliging sightlines and infinitely more obedient acoustic strip away some of the illusion, the constant play of conceal-reveal, that this programme thrives on. What we didn’t get here was arms-length wonder and awe. 

But I’m not sure that this wasn’t better. Closer quarters — both spatially and sonically — exposed all to the ear. There’s something exhilarating about hearing not disembodied angel-trumpets but cornetts that, for all their ringing brilliance, sound scuffed with spit and breath. This was music-making that showed its working, that let you glimpse (literally, in St John’s open layout) behind the curtain, exposing the human mechanism behind the music.

We’re all familiar with classical concert rituals: the tuning up, the applause, the bows, instruments raised to start. Take those away and you get musical theatre in the truest sense, full of possibility and uncertainty. With performers spread right around the church — answering each other across the galleries, outside the open doors, processing on and off in complicated choreography – music can come from anywhere. Standing in the centre, no music-stand or score in front of him, McCreesh was less conductor than magus, summoning sounds at will.

And what sounds. A reedy chamber-organ was coaxed into wriggling brilliance by Masumi Yamamato in Giovanni Gabrieli’s Toccata del secondo tono; an all-male choir carved plainsong lines with architectural clarity, their severe monophony the still point against which the dazzling, ricocheting volleys of polyphony could be measured: Andrea Gabrieli’s 16-part Gloria — a gilded mesh of brass, woodwind and voices — and, at the other extreme, the tightly-woven intimacy of his communion motet O Sacrum Convivium for just five male voices.

There’s something exhilarating about music where voices and instruments are so promiscuously mingled, where a countertenor ducks and dives among four rasping trombones, where a violin and voice shadow-box in exact imitation.

Later this month a royal jubilee will be marked with performances by Gary Barlow and Kylie Minogue. It’s hard not to feel cheated. When it comes to civic pomp and circumstance, Doge Grimani and his Venetians certainly knew a thing or two.

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