The Myth of Venice

The Myth of Venice
16th-century music for cornetto & keyboards
Gawain Glenton & Silas Wollston
Delphian DCD34261. 61’50

In a very successful bit of promotional branding, medieval Venice built a perception of itself as La Serenissima (“the most serene”) and the successor of ancient Rome, with a similarly impressive range of foundation myths and ceremonials, that led historians to reference as the Myth of Venice. The myth was largely supported by its architecture, then as now a draw for visitors from around the world. This recording, The Myth of Venice explores the musical development of the Myth of Venice, exploring the 16th-century Venetian composers and performers who helped to put Venice on the musical map. Their starting point is Adrian Willaert’s arrival in 1527 on to the end of the century, with composers including Parabosco, Padovano, Merulo, Andrea Gabrieli, Bellavere, Ganassi and Bassano.

It wasn’t until the arrival of Adrian Willaert at St Mark’s Cathedral in 1527 that Venice could finally boast a musician of international reputation to match its growing image as a ‘city rich in gold but richer in renown, mighty in works but mightier in virtue’. It soon became a world leader in music publishing and a gathering place for musicians. As the promotional comments for the recording mention, “artistic competition was order of the day, with organists duelling to outdo each other in invention and grace; while on the streets a different culture of lively dances gave rise to more opportunities for instrumentalists to show off their improvisational skills”.

Gawain Glenton and Silas Wollston focus on the often virtuosic repertoire for cornetto and keyboard as a timely contrast to the better known choral and instrumental repertoire of the period. A virginals (a copy of the c1570 ‘Queen Elizabeth’s Virginals’) and two organs are used. One is a copy by Goetze & Gwynn of a six-stop late 17th-century Italian positive organ (the specification on the website is incorrect as the Decimanona is 1 ft, not as shown) and a particularly attractive organ di legno by Walter Chinaglia. The fact that both organs are based on 8′ Principale stops (the first in metal, the second in cypress wood) is particularly noteworthy when compared to the ubiquitous little ‘chest’ continuo organs so often used in early music performance, without any historic precedent.

The more exuberant pieces are played at breathtaking speeds, accenting the ferocity of the numerous ornaments and flourishes. But the balance with more reflective pieces is appropriate, helped by the switching between the two organs and virginals. The acoustics are very different from those of St Marks, or any other Venetian venues that the music is likely to have been performed in. Musicians in Venetian churches would have performed from galleries adjacent to the church organs, which were usually in pairs facing each other across the church. The acoustics of the space would have added considerable bloom to the sound, with comparatively gentle sounds managing to fill the space with sound. But here, at St Saviour’s Church, Chalk Farm, London, the recording is closely focussed, with little acoustic help.