Gabrieli and St Mark's Venetian Brass Music
The instrumental music of the Venetian school, and principally the canzonas and sonatas of Giovanni Gabrieli, have long been a happy hunting ground for brass ensembles; in effect, this varied and rewarding repertory constitutes the earliest coherent body of music designed for 'brass' instruments. Brass is, though, something of a misconception, since the ensembles for which these pieces were originally written were constituted otherwise from those which are now commonly heard; in particular, the cornetto of Gabrieli's time is quite different in timbre, less brilliant and hard-edged, than the modern trumpets which are assigned the upper parts on both these records. That said, these two discs take quite contrasted approaches to the problem of satisfactorily realizing this repertory, conceived for a quite specific and different sound-world, on modern instruments.
The effect produced by Empire Brass is rich, at times overwhelmingly so, with touches of blowsiness that verge on the unsophisticated, their rhythmic style in active passages is punchy, with plenty of force in the bass; elsewhere there is an almost vocal approach to phrasing in long-breathed sections of mellifluous polyphony. The overall result is impressive, superficially glittering, but ultimately rather relentless. And, unfortunately, much of the detail of the music is missed; the antiphonal effect of repeated moments passed from one group of instruments, a characteristic of the Venetian style, calls out for dynamic differentiation, but all too often these performances romp through the score at a steady mezzoforte. Initially exciting, but on careful listening unresponsive to the demends of Gabrieli's carefully-designed structures.
The Wallace Collection turn in a quite different approach (and it is worth noting that five of Giovanni Gabrieli's pieces occur on both records, allowing plenty of scope for comparison). Here a careful reading of the Sonata pian e forte, the earliest piece in the history of music in which the composer distinguishes between soft and loud passages, seems to have been taken as a general cue for a careful attitude towards dynamics and, in particular, towards the architectural details of these pieces. Wallace assigns the instruments on a strictly one-to-a-part principle (Empire Brass indulge in doubling); this is historically correct and it pays off in terms of linear clarity. These are, though, not dutifully dull authentic performances. There is real understanding here of the way in which this music is layered, most obviously in the clear separation of fast-moving upper lines (often further enlivened with brilliantly-executed improvised ornamentation), from the sonorous lower parts played on trombones. Both these discs make for enjoyable and exciting listening, but in the last analysis I have no hesitation in prefering the interpretations of John Wallace and his ensemble of virtuosos.'