The scene is 1612 in Venice: a great battle has been won against the dreaded Ottoman Empire, and in celebration, evening prayers are ordered to be set to music specially composed by the great Giovanni Gabrieli, Claudio Monteverdi and others. It's an imaginary scene, of course, actually taking place in this late Prom at London's Royal Albert Hall, and dreamt up by Robert Hollingworth, director of the period ensemble I Fagiolini.

Nicholas Hurndall Smith and Matthew Long, tenors from I Fagiolini
Nicholas Hurndall Smith and Matthew Long, tenors from I Fagiolini

One of the common pitfalls of early music concerts is our lack of context: we're not noblemen in a court or ducal chapel, and since individual works are relatively short, it's easy for a concert to degenerate into a series of similar-sounding short pieces unlinked by any theme that makes sense to us. Hollingworth set the scene for us clearly in a short interview before the performance and did an excellent job of getting us into the right mental state for listening to this relatively unfamiliar music, including two Gabrieli works lovingly reconstructed from surviving fragments by Hugh Keyte.

I can only say it simply: the music blew me away. Material of this period constitutes the last hurrah of the renaissance musical style before it was overtaken by the decorative excesses of the baroque: the vocal writing is in intricate counterpoint, combining with the instrumental accompaniment into delicate harmonies which build and swell. Although choirs are not large, this concert employed several of them interspersed with soloists, resulting in highly complex layers of sound.

There was no shortage of variety. We opened with works by Monteverdi's less remembered contemporary Lodovico Viadana, starting with a large antiphonal Deus in adiutorium and moving on to a soprano solo O dulcissima Maria, sung exquisitely by Clare Wilkinson, and a joyful larger choral work Lauda, Ierusalem. Placed between these was the evening's only instrumental number: a set of "divisions" (the modern word would be "variations") by Giovanni Bassano on a theme by Palestrina, played on cornet, sackbut and chamber organ. Here, you could clearly hear the beginnings of the increased decoration of the baroque, although more straightforward and cleaner in sound, probably in view of the limitations of the older instruments.

The centrepiece of the evening was the first of Keyte's Gabrieli reconstructions: a Magnificat in 20 parts (or 28, if one uses the two optional choirs permitted). To fill the Albert Hall, Hollingworth used the full set of choirs, but kept them close to each other to ensure the close, responsive harmony required. To add excitement, however, drums and trumpet were located by the statue of Henry Wood high above the stage, and church bells and cannon shots came from off-stage (or a recording, I couldn't tell). The sense of drama was palpable. For me, the next work was the best of all: a Monteverdi Salve regina sung by Nicholas Hurndall Smith and Matthew Long which needed no off-stage tricks to add to its drama: the dynamics of the music and the glorious combination of the two voices set the pulse racing.

The most notable feature of this concert was the infinite variety in the way different voices were employed. Counter-tenor, tenors, baritone, bass and soprano soloists were mixed with multiple choirs in dozens of different combinations, so your ear never knew quite what was coming next, except for the likelihood that most pieces would end by bringing many voices together for a Gloria Patri which would provide harmonic resolution of the threads preceding it.

To my intense surprise, I found myself really enjoying the Royal Albert Hall's acoustics - something I never thought I'd say about a Prom. The voices were startlingly clear, both in diction (I could hear every syllable of the Latin) and in the way they cut through the instrumental wash. The period instruments have their own characteristic sound which is very evocative, and they don't drown out the voices in the way that more powerful modern instruments would have done. The result was a combination of vocal melody and instrumental harmony that was intensely satisfying.

I hesitated slightly before awarding this concert its fifth star, being aware that music of this period is something of a special interest and I'm in a minority in preferring it to the later baroque. But it passes the test of being a concert that I will remember for a long time: this was music making of the highest order on a well thought out programme that perfectly suited the occasion of a late evening in the Albert Hall. Lovers of renaissance vocal music could not have asked for a better showcase.

*****