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Giovanni Pierluigi DA PALESTRINA (c1525 - 1594): Sacred works

[I] "Volume 6"
The Sixteen
Dir: Harry Christophers
rec: Jan 13 - 15, 2015, London, Church of St Alban the Martyr, Holborn
Coro - COR16133 (© 2015) (71'23")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

De profundis clamavi a 5 [9]; Dilectus meus mihi a 5 [6]; Missa L'homme armé a 5 [3]; Parce mihi a 5 [7]; Peccantem me quotidie a 5 [4]; Si ambulavero in medio tribulationis a 5 [9]; Super flumina Babylonis a 5 [9]; Surgam et circuibo civitatem a 5 [6]; Surge amica mea a 5 [6]; Tribularer si nescirem a 6 [4]; Tribulationes civitatum audivimus a 5 [7]

Julie Cooper, Grace Davidson, Sally Dunkley, Kirsty Hopkins, Alexandra Kidgell, Charlotte Mobbs, soprano; Kim Porter, contralto; Ian Aitkenhead, Daniel Collins, Edward McMullan, alto; Simon Berridge, Jeremy Budd, Mark Dobell, Steven Harrold, tenor; Ben Davies, Eamonn Dougan, Robert Evans, Tim Jones, bass

[II] "Volume 7"
The Sixteen
Dir: Harry Christophers
rec: Jan 9 - 11, 2017, London, Church of St Alban the Martyr, Holborn
Coro - COR16155 (© 2017) (71'23")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Adiuro vos filiae Jerusalem a 5 [6]; Angelus Domini descendit a 5 [5]; Ave maris stella a 4 [8]; Beata Barbara a 6 [4]; Beatae Mariae Magdalenae a 5 [2]; Caput eius aureum optimum a 5 [6]; Dilectus meus descendit in hortum suum a 5 [6]; In diebus illis a 4 [1]; Missa Ave Regina coelorum a 4 [10]; Susanna ab improbis senibus a 6 [5]; Veni sponsa Christi a 4 [1]

Camilla Harris, Kary Hill, Kirsty Hopkins, Alexandra Kidgell, Charlotte Mobbs, Emilia Morton, soprano; Martha McLorinan, Kim Porter, Caroline Trevor, contralto; Ian Aitkenhead, Daniel Collins, alto; Simon Berridge, Jeremy Budd, Mark Dobell, George Pooley, tenor; Ben Davies, Eamonn Dougan, Jimmy Holliday, Tim Jones, Rob Macdonald, bass

Sources: [1] Motecta festorum totius anni cum Communi Sanctorum ... liber primus, 1563; [2] Liber primus motettorum, 1569; [3] Missarum liber tertius, 1570; [4] Motettorum liber secundus, 1572; [5] Motettorum liber tertius, 1575; [6] Motettorum liber quartus ex Canticis canticorum, 1584; [7] Motectorum liber quintus, 1584; [8] Hymni totius anni, 1589; [9] Offertoria totius anni, 1593; [10] Missarum liber nonus, 1599


Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina was one of the most revered composers of his own time. The many printed editions of his oeuvre during his lifetime attest to that. The drastic change in musical taste around 1600, which is generally known as the seconda prattica or stile nuovo, did not harm his reputation at all. Some of his compositions were the subject of passaggi by the main representatives of that genre, and motets were adapted for a performance according to the taste of the time. Moreover, during the entire 17th century composers continued to write sacred music in the stile of Palestrina. The latter was especially the case with music for Roman churches as they could hardly escape the attention of the ecclesiastical authorities which were very critical about the modern fashions because of the influence of opera.

In the 18th century Bach studied Palestrina's music and arranged one of his masses. In the 19th century a true Palestrina revival took place, when attempts were made to restore the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church to its former glory. Palestrina was the hero of the Cecilian movement, and this resulted in the printing of his complete oeuvre in a modern edition. Palestrina was the very first composer of the renaissance on whom that honour was conferred. Today his name is inextricably connected to one work, the Missa Papae Marcelli. Other works which are frequently performed are the Missa Tu es Petrus and the Stabat mater. However, it would be exaggerated to say that his music is frequently performed. In fact, the number of review copies with music by the likes of Josquin, Gombert, Lassus and English composers of the renaissance exceeds the number of Palestrina discs I have received over the years. Most recordings of his music which have come my way, are part of the present series of The Sixteen, directed by Harry Christophers.

This project will probably consist of ten discs, as every programme is put together around three items from the collection which Palestrina published under the title of Canticum Canticorum, comprising 29 motets on texts from the Song of Songs. These pieces were first and foremost intended for performance in private circles. This explains why they are usually recorded with one voice per part or at least a very small ensemble. Christophers decided to perform them with the full ensemble. The argument in favour of this line-up is that these motets could also be sung - and were sung - during the liturgy. This way these performances are meaningful alternatives to most recordings in the catalogue.

It is not easy to make a choice from such a large corpus of music. Only in the category of masses Palestrina's output exceeds the one hundred. Add to that the hundreds of motets, hymns, lamentations, offertories, magnificats and litanies, and one will understand that it is a major undertaking to find one's way in his oeuvre. Christophers has done a fine job by making sure that there is some coherence within each programme. The previous discs I have reviewed here included music for Advent and Christmas respectively. Each of the present discs also has a subject. "The motets and Offertories recorded here ... speak of despair, loneliness, the fear of death, the need for repentance, the pain of sin, the pain of separation, of exile", Martyn Imrie writes in his liner-notes to Volume 6.

Parce mihi Domine is a setting of a text from the Book of Job: "Spare me Lord, for my days are nothing". Palestrina makes effective use of harmony to highlight some key elements in the text. Peccantem me quotidie is about sin and death: "I sin daily and have no remorse. The fear of death disturbs me". Here rhythmic contrasts are used for reasons of text expression. Tribulationes civitatum audivimus is a responsory at Matins for the Dead. It is in two sections, both ending with the words "O Lord, hav mercy". De profundis clamavi is one of the seven penitential psalms, sung in particular during Lent. The opening phrase is eloquently set by Palestrina with descending and rising figures. Tribularer si nescirem is a lament about sin and a prayer for mercy: "I would be downcast if I knew not of Thy mercies, Lord". Palestrina uses here an ostinato refrain on the text "Miserere mei Deus" (Have mercy on me, O God), allocated to the second alto.

Volume 7 focuses on the role of women in Palestrina's music. First place takes the Virgin Mary: the veneration of Mary was one of the cornerstones of the Counter Reformation. That comes to the fore in the motets from the Song of Songs: since ancient times the girl who figures in this book from the Old Testament was identified with the Virgin Mary. Ave maris stella is a hymn for Vespers on a Marian feast, whereas Ave Regina coelorum is one of the Marian antiphons. Palestrina took the latter as the starting point of a mass setting for four voices; in the Agnus Dei II Palestrina adds a fifth voice and includes a canon. In the Osanna he alternates between duple and triple time.

The remaining pieces are connected to other women, either from the Bible or from tradition. An important female figure in the Catholic liturgy was another Mary: Mary Magdalene, and to such an extent that her name was connected to biblical stories in which she probably was not involved at all. For instance, she was identified with the woman who anoints the feet of Jesus in the house of Simon the leper (Matthew 26); this story is set in In diebus illis, a motet in die Sanctae Mariae Magdalenae. For that same feast Palestrina composed Beatae Mariae Magdalenae, in which this Mary is conflated with Mary of Bethany, the sister of Lazarus, who was raised from the dead by Jesus. Women - among them Mary Magdalene - were the first to find out about Jesus's resurrection; this is the subject of Angelus Domini descendit, a motet for Easter Sunday. It is in four sections. The first and third end with the words of the angel: "And he spake thus to the women: Fear not". The second and fourth have the same text and close with an Alleluia in triple time.

Historically interesting is Beata Barbara, one of two motets from Palestrina's pen about this saint, who was the patroness of the Gonzaga dynasty in Mantua. He had close connections to the Gonzagas, and in 1583 attempts were made to make him move to Mantua in order to become choirmaster there. The stories about Barbara are probably fictitious. Susanna - who figures in the apocryphal chapter from the Book of Daniel - certainly is. Her story has been the subject of many compositions in the course of history, from Lassus' famous chanson Susanne un jour to Handel's oratorio Susanna. Palestrina's motet Susanna ab improbis senibus is a short version of the story, ending with a joyous conclusion in triple time: "And the Lord heard her voice, and her innocent blood was saved that day".

The mass setting in Vol. 6 is remarkable. In Palestrina's oeuvre we find very few parody masses based on a secular subject. After all the Council of Trent had decided that any influence of secular music needed to be banished from the liturgy. That makes Palestrina's choice of the secular song L'homme armé for a mass setting rather surprising. In fact, he used it twice: the mass recorded here was included in the third book of masses of 1570, the second in the fourth, published in 1582. In the latter the song melody is not that easily recognizable as Palestrina reworked it quite drastically. It is much more clearly audible in the first setting recorded here. In several places the entire melody is sung in its original form. The origin of the song is not entirely clear nor who composed it. The text, in translation, is as follows: "The armed man should be feared. Everywhere it has been proclaimed that each man shall arm himself with a coat of iron mail. The armed man should be feared." Some have suggested the 'armed man' represents the archangel Michael. The chanson has also been associated with a crusade against the Turks. The song appeared first at the time of the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in 1453. The spiritual connotations may well explain Palestrina's decision to use it.

Considering the fact that Palestrina's music is not that often recorded, one has to welcome this project of The Sixteen. They produce a nice and clear sound and although the ensemble is not specialized in early music I enjoyed its performances, more so than I usually appreciate performances of The Tallis Scholars, an ensemble which is comparable to The Sixteen. However, I feel there is need for a different approach by specialists, just like the performance of earlier sacred repertoire has received substantial incentives from scholars as Rebecca Stewart. Recent recordings of the Sistine Chapel Choir, directed by Massimo Palombella, offer meaningful alternatives to the more traditional approach to Palestrina's music. It is to be hoped that we will see a more varied interpretation of this repertoire. It could also result in a better reception of his oeuvre, which many music lovers seem to consider rather dull. These recordings by The Sixteen certainly are not, but even so, I would advise to consume these recordings in sensible quantities.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

The Sixteen

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