It’s a long way from modern Durham to renaissance Venice, from a cold winter evening in a small northern English city to a spring morning in one of the richest and most powerful cities the world has ever seen – but Paul McCreesh’s imaginative reconstruction of a Venetian Doge’s coronation mass made the leap almost instantaneous. Unseen male voices, beginning somewhere near the high altar and slowly moving closer, chanted a plainsong introit, then from the other end of the building, a distant distant drum and fanfare of trumpets heralded the entry of the Doge, and our time machine had landed.
According to Paul McCreesh’s informative programme notes, Venetian liturgical practices seem to lend themselves particularly well to a concert performance like this, for music was of paramount importance, and spoken parts of the service would often be conducted quietly at the high altar, allowing the music to flow on, uninterrupted. The sung parts of the service, consisting of both full choral and instrumental settings and plainchant, were interspersed with short instrumental sections, either canzonas by Giovanni Gabrieli, or wonderfully delicate chamber organ solos, played by Jan Waterfield. Some of these instrumental sections had a surprisingly secular feel to them, not at all dissimilar to dance music from the same period. The Canzona à 12 that separated the two chanted Bible readings was delightfully light-hearted, with a fiddle-like violin, and the last of them, the Canzona à 10, featured some excitingly virtuosic cornett playing: it was easy to see how these church instrumental pieces eventually evolved into the familiar instrumental forms we know today – the concerto, sonata and symphony.
The opening fanfares were played on trumpets, but apart from one brief fanfare on a solitary trumpet marking the moment of the elevation of the host, the players then switched to the more mellow sounds of cornetts and sackbuts. The sackbut is the ancestor of the modern trombone, and produces a beautifully mournful and solemn tone: I enjoyed the sackbut playing throughout the evening, but the stately and solemn Canzona à 15 that followed the elevation was particularly moving. The cornett (not to be confused with a modern cornet) is a strange hybrid of brass and woodwind – it’s an oddly curved wooden tube, with finger-holes, but the sound is produced with a cup-shaped mouthpiece, in the same way as a brass instrument. The result is an earthy, husky sound, unlike anything else, and in the hands of the Gabrieli Players capable of quite amazing virtuosity.
Then of course, there were the sung parts of the service. The “ordinary” parts of the Mass (here, the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus and Benedictus) were sung to settings by Andrea Gabrieli from 1587. The opening Kyrie was largely for solo voice, sung here by the outstanding young tenor soloist Benedict Hymas, his absolutely pure and high ethereal tones set off against the warmth of the accompanying sackbuts. When the chorus came in, and then at the beginning of the Gloria, they were rather overwhelmed by the instruments, but this settled down and the balance improved greatly as the concert progressed. The plainchant passages were passed around several soloists in this all-male chorus, and were all sung with a wonderfully hypnotic rise and fall. It was so evocative, I could almost smell the swirling clouds of incense, until suddenly, the familiar chant of the Sursum Corda (“Lift up your hearts”), which is still used in many Anglican churches today, gave a nice little sense of continuity; Durham and Venice momentarily joined.
I also enjoyed the Offertory Deus qui beatum Marcum (“O God who has exalted St Mark”), sung thrillingly by altos David Allsopp and Mark Chambers, but the real highlight was when five of the soloists came together for the communion anthem O Sacrum Convivium by Andrea Gabrieli. Accompanied subtly by the chamber organ, this was rich, creamy and immaculate polyphonic singing. There is something about the atmosphere and acoustics in Durham Cathedral that really convey what an audience is feeling, and there was definitely a collective relaxation after this piece, as the spell broke and everyone breathed again.
The superlative singing and exciting instrumental playing came together in the final anthem, Giovanni Gabrieli’s sixteen-part Omnes Gentes (“O clap your hands all ye people”). This was perfectly timed, every detail crystal clear, and absolutely pulsating with power. After that, and everything that preceded it, hands were clapping enthusiastically without needing any instruction.