Andrea Gabrieli (c. 1532-1585), uncle of the nowadays more famous Giovanni, was a wonderful composer. He was no youthful whizz-kid, and it took him many years of work as a Venetian organist and composer to achieve full maturity and recognition. His musical development was strongly affected by his mutually beneficial friendship with Orlande de Lassus, the latter by then based in Munich. He emerged gradually, therefore, as a great composer; his nephew Giovanni certainly thought he was just that, and it's thanks to the latter that we owe the preservation and posthumous publication of much of Andrea's work which has come down to us today.
The present recording brings us Andrea's collection 'Madrigali et Ricercari a quattro voci', printed by Giovanni in 1589. This is a group of four-voice madrigals with instrumental parts, to verses by Petrarch and others, some in related sequences of four, five or six works, a few others standing as single pieces. They are varied in mood and content, some lyrical and others in lively dance rhythms. They are sung here by the four male voices of the Italian-based Speculum Ensemble, all very fine voices with an especially beautiful balance, in soulful style and full of feeling. For most of these works there are instrumental parts, here performed by the excellent period instrument ensemble Tastar de Corde, consisting of violin and viol, several plucked strings, bass viol and harpsichord – the latter played by director Marcello Candela.
These vocal works are supplemented by seven instrumental Ricercari, placed together in the original publication but for this recording very sensibly interspersed among the madrigals. Some of them are complex, robustly developed pieces; a few will be familiar to regular fans of Venetian collections, more often played by cornetti and sackbuts but here rendered on the instruments mentioned above. In the present format they sound both splendid and delightful, often more gentle and lyrical in mood than in the scorings for wind, and with the polyphonic strands here picked out most beautifully by the use of contrasting instruments. I especially appreciated Ricercare IV nel settimo tono (track 18), Ricercare V nel sesto tono (22); and Ricercare VII nel dodicesimo tono (29) - the latter very familiar from other recordings but here rendered on harpsichord, viol and plucked strings, much enhanced by these delicious textures, elegant lines and frequent changes of metre.
The entire, well-organised programme works most beautifully in these sensitive performances. The rich recorded ambience is slightly resonant, recorded in studio rather than church but sounding just right. Booklet notes are excellent, extremely interesting and helpful. Italian texts are given, but without English translations – for the latter we are instead referred to a book by A. Tillman Merritt which can be bought or consulted from various sources, but not online as far as I can tell. This will be a slight nuisance to non-italophones; but this programme is such a beautifully performed and much-needed addition to the still sparse discography of the composer, that it well deserves a five-star rating.
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