Few early music enthusiasts - or indeed classical fans in general - will fail to twig that this is a remake of the Gabrieli Consort's brilliantly successful "A Venetian Coronation" of 1990. Just in case it needs to be said, that recording was a conjectural reconstruction, or re-creation, of the music performed in the Basilica of St. Mark's, Venice, to celebrate the coronation of Doge Marino Grimani in April 1595. The music is based around a polychoral mass by Andrea Gabrieli, with additional motets by Andrea and his nephew Giovanni and several instrumental items. Most of the vocal pieces chosen for this new recording are as on the earlier disc, but there are some changes in the instrumental works.
The approach, however, is somewhat different. This is immediately evident in the opening track of the disc, recreating the sound of the procession in the Piazza San Marco, with bells and a constant hum of voices from the crowd; and in these magical few moments we are irresistibly transported back in time to late renaissance Venice. Instruments - first shawms, then trumpets and drums - are heard above the general hubbub of sound, and other signs of celebration too; and then we proceed into the Basilica for the Mass and its accompanying chants, organ intonations and canzoni. Andrea Gabrieli's multi-choir mass movements consist of Kyrie, Gloria and Sanctus-Benedictus, beginning with 5 voices and varying up to the 16 voices in 4 choirs of the Gloria. It is all magnificent music - beautifully sung here, and very differently from the earlier recording. The all-male solo singers sound marvellous with their clear, ringing tones, and the integration of grandeur with intimacy is beautifully managed by both performers and sound engineers.
The three instrumental canzoni by Giovanni Gabrieli are played with energy, agility and feeling. I especially liked the beautiful 15-part canzona (track 19) to which these brilliant wind players bring both solemnity and tenderness, sounding as if they really mean it. Of the remaining vocal pieces, Andrea's "O sacrum convivium" (23) sounds quite wonderful, characterised by the sensitivity and profound sincerity that are among the greatest assets of McCreesh's singers. Giovanni's 10-part "Deus qui beatum Marcum" (15) is magnificent also, as is above all his concluding "Omnes gentes à 16", providing a superbly sonorous climax with the musicians all singing and playing their hearts out.
All this offers a fascinating comparison with the earlier recording, and in the booklet notes the conductor explains the developments, both historical and technical, in his and the ensemble's approach to the music. For me, the great assets of the new recording are the even greater brilliance and virtuosity of the players and singers, and the subtleties of the more intimate moments; there is grandeur where appropriate, but it's the delicate shades of colour and expression that really strike home in this music.
The booklet notes are excellent, and there are three superb photos of the performers at work. Although we get a full list of the musicians, I could have done with a bit more detailed information on who is playing and singing in each work. The almost-plain white cover of the digipack, in common with others on the Gabrielis' Winged Lion label, is very tasteful, but I wonder if their fans may not find this style a bit dull after a few more releases. A monochrome design imprinted on that white cover, an engraving of some kind appropriate to the music within, would look pretty good and might liven things up a bit while still preserving the label's identity.
After all, there is nothing dull about this music or its performance here. For me this new Venetian Coronation programme represents the ultimate expression of the idea of historically informed performance (H.I.P. for short) and I would go as far as to challenge the cohorts (or at least conturbenii) of determined anti-HIPsters to listen to this disc - preferably on a good sound system and after first checking their hearing aids - and then still say it's boring without privately choking on their words. Above all, this is a splendid tribute to the pioneering music of the two Gabrielis from their brilliant namesake ensemble. If you already know and love the earlier Coronation disc, I believe you will find a challenging and very informative comparison in the new one; and if you don't, I would say this VC2 is the one to go for.