The celebrated Giovanni Gabrieli, one of the most innovative and influential composers of the Venetian school, exacting the transition between the Renaissance and Baroque musical periods, died on 12 August 1612. Four hundred years on, QuintEssential Sackbut and Cornett Ensemble with guest soloists soprano Grace Davidson and tenor Steven Harrold present In Venetia, the headline concert of the Gregynog Festival 2012 and a tribute to this exceptional man.

QuintEssential
QuintEssential

Formed in 1993, QuintEssential is a nine-part ensemble directed by Richard Thomas, comprising two cornettists, two violinists, four sackbuttists (early trombone players), theorboist and organist. Never having seen a theorbo (an extend lute able to play the basso continuo and plucked realisation simultaneously) played live, or indeed a tenor cornett, I found that the performance of these pieces on instruments which are all exact copies of period instruments held in museums added an exciting visual dimension to an already impressive performance.

Presenting a diverse programme showcasing canzone and sonate not only by Gabrieli, but also by a number of his Venetian contemporaries (notably Monteverdi, Grandi and Castello), this concert did not lack variety. Indeed, it included the first performance of Giovanni Priuli’s Missa sopra Filiae Jerusalem in the UK since the 17th century, interspersed with instrumental settings by Scarini and Marini, the highlight of which was Marini’s Sonata per Quattro Tromboni, which saw QuintEssential’s four trombonists Philip Dale, Adam Woolf, George Bartle and Adrian France took to an upstairs balcony for their exquisite performance of this meditational piece.

Another highlight was a stunning performance of Alessandro Grandi’s Salve Regina from Grace Davidson, winner of the Early Music Prize and a regular member of Harry Christopher’s The Sixteen. Faultless throughout the concert, it was here that Davidson really shone and left the audience with no doubt as to why she is one of the leading soloists of Renaissance and Baroque music. It was here too that violinists Sharon Lindo and Oliver Webbe demonstrated their merit.

Steven Harrold (who has also sung with The Sixteen, perhaps accounting for how well matched and perfectly balanced his and Davidson’s voices are) displayed his vocal agility in Monteverdi’s Exulta, filia Sion, where he easily navigated the gymnastic, heavily decorated vocal line supported by sturdy and competent performance by QuintEssential. Harrold’s rendition of Claudi Merulo’s Favus distilans was equally as precise, but unfortunately Jamie Aker’s theorbo playing was lost in this piece, overpowered by the more dominant sackbuts. Due to the theorbo’s capacity to produce only a quieter volume, sadly Aker’s contribution could only be made out in the smaller ensembles. Harrold and Davidson's collaboration was particularly enjoyable in Gabrieli’s Canzon decima terza and Cantate Dominum.

While QuintEssential gave a generally very tight performance, in Dario Castello’s instrumental Sonata decima terza the performance felt less assured. Particularly in the more challenging faster sections of extended imitation between cornett parts, it felt as if notes were lost and sometimes felt dangerously close to falling apart. Yet it was held together, admirably becoming stronger towards the end.

The acoustic of the National Museum of Wales was perfectly suited to this concert. With high, multifaceted ceilings and a first floor balcony, this was as close as any modern production of Gabrieli’s works could get to recreating the aural effects achievable in St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. Thank you to QuintEssential, Grace Davidson and Steven Harrold for a thoroughly enjoyable evening.