As Jamie Savan, founder of the Gonzaga Band, points out in his excellent notes, cash‑strapped Italian churches and cathedrals could rarely muster the forces required by works such as Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610. Chamber settings for a handful of instrumentalists and one or two solo voices were the norm. Without seeking to recreate a specific 17th-century Vespers service, à la Paul McCreesh, Savan has devised an enterprising programme that interleaves the Vespers music – the opening versicle, the five psalms, the hymn Ave maris stella and the Magnificat – with aptly chosen instrumental works.
Frescobaldi and Banchieri apart, the assorted monks, organists and maestri di cappella represented here range from the shadowy to the totally obscure. While some of the music might be dubbed agreeable Monteverdi-lite, there are some delightful discoveries: Tarditi’s exuberant Domine ad adiuvandum, for instance, with its juicy false relations, or Petrobelli’s Laetatus sum, conceived as a sacred operatic scena. Finest of all, perhaps, is Banchieri’s Magnificat, with its alternation of plainchant and expressively harmonised verses, and its rollicking final ‘Alleluja’.
Congregations in 17th-century Ancona or Bologna would have been lucky indeed to hear instrumental playing remotely as vivid as the Gonzaga Band’s. Savan and Gawain Glenton are cornettists of flair and subtlety, while Steven Devine and Richard Sweeney nicely balance capricious flexibility and forward momentum in Frescobaldi’s Canzon and fugal Capriccio. The ubiquitous dancing triple-time rhythms in the Vespers settings are always alive and supple, avoiding the trap of over-accentuation. If both singers could have wrung more drama from the words, their pure, instrumental timbres (blending perfectly with each other, and with the cornetts), delicacy and easy agility are invariably beguiling. Once or twice – I’m thinking especially of Crotti’s Sancta Maria – the cornetts can outgun Faye Newton’s bell‑like soprano. Otherwise no complaints about the balance, or the ideally sympathetic acoustic of St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead.