musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Sacred music in Renaissance Rome

[I] "The Call of Rome"
The Sixteen
Dir: Harry Christophers
rec: Nov 12 - 13, 2019, London, Church of St Augustine, Kilburn
Coro - COR16178 (© 2020) (72'45")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Gregorio ALLEGRI (1582-1652): Miserere mei Deus a 9; Missa In lectulo meo a 8 (Gloria); Felice ANERIO (c1560-1614): Litaniae Beatissimae Virginis Mariae a 8; Regina caeli laetare a 8; JOSQUIN DESPREZ (c1450/55-1521): Gaude virgo mater Christi a 4; Illibata Dei virgo a 5; Pater noster/Ave Maria a 6; plainchant: De Lamentatione; Tomás Luis DE VICTORIA (1548-1611): Responsoria et alia ad Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae spectantia a 4 (Sabbato Sancto) [2]; Salve Regina a 8 [1]

Sources: Tomás Luis de Victoria, [1] Liber primus: qui missas, psalmos, Magnificat ... aliaque complectitur, 1576; [2] Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae, 1585

Julie Cooper, Grace Davidson, Sally Dunkley, Kary Hill, Kirsty Hopkins, Alexandra Kidgell, Charlotte Mobbs, Ruth Provost, soprano; Kim Porter, contralto; Ian Aitkenhead, David Clegg, Daniel Collins, David Gould, Edward McMullan, Christopher Royall, alto; Simon Berridge, Jeremy Budd, Mark Dobell, Steven Harrold, William Knight, George Pooley, tenor; Ben Davies, Eamonn Dougan, Tim Jones, Rob Macdonald, bass

[II] Giovanni Pierluigi DA PALESTRINA (c1525 - 1594): Missa Papae Marcelli
Beauty Farm
rec: Oct 11, 2020 (live), Brunnenthal, Pfarr- und Wallfahrtskirche Mariä Heimsuchung
fra bernardo - fb2017671 (© 2021) (47'37")
Liner-notes: E; no lyrics
Cover, track-list & liner-notes

Giovanni Pierluigi DA PALESTRINA: Missa Papae Marcelli a 6; plainchant: Ave maris stella; Bernardus doctor inclitus; Pange lingua; Te Deum; Ut queant laxis; Veni Redemptor gentium

Source: Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Missarum liber secundus, 1567

Bart Uvyn, Matteo Pigato, alto; Tore Tom Denys, Achim Schulz, tenor; Martin Schicketanz, baritone; Pieter Stas, Joachim Höchbauer, bass

Since ancient times, Rome was the centre of the Christian world. Until the schism, which resulted in the birth of the Easter Orthodox Church, that is. That was in 1054. Since then, it was the centre of the Western Church. This lasted until another schism, which we call the Reformation, and which resulted in a large part of Europe challenging the central place of Rome. Christ, not the Pope was the head of the Church. And the Christian church was catholic - not connected to a specific place, like Rome. The Protestants called the church of Rome 'Roman Catholic'.

Since then, Rome was the centre of that part of Europe, and - in the wake of the colonisation of the New World - also of what we now call Latin America. Its dominance was not confined to doctrinal matters. Rome was also a centre of sacred music. There was quite some freedom in liturgical matters; it was not until the early 20th century that the liturgy was formally fixed for the church worldwide. However, Rome was the place to be for many singers and composers. The title of the first disc to be reviewed here sums it up: Rome was calling to composers who wanted to be someone in musical matters, and especially in the field of sacred music. Josquin Desprez, Cristóbal de Morales and Tomás Luis de Victoria were just three who stayed some time in Rome, either as a singer or as part of a learning process in the capacity as a composer of music for the church. And Rome had some fine composers itself, such as Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Gregorio Allegri and the Anerio brothers. Over the years Harry Christophers and his ensemble The Sixteen have performed many pieces by the main representatives of Roman Catholic church music, and here they bring a mixture of pieces by some of the most famous masters and one lesser-known composer: Felice Anerio.

From 1489 to 1491 Josquin worked as a singer in the papal choir. He was also a prolific composer whose works were frequently performed by the papal choir. The motet was the genre for which Josquin was especially famous, and Marian devotion takes a special place in his output, as more than half of his motets are connected to Mary. That was not just a token of the importance of the veneration of Mary in the Christian church in his time, but it also attests to his personal feelings. Illibata Dei virgo is a telling example. "The text of the first part is an acrostic, where the initial letter of each line spells out the name 'Josquin Desprez'. The tenor part has a recurring three-note motif, solemnised as 'la-mi-la' (A-E-A), standing for 'Ma-ri-a'. There are 29 repetitions, with one final note added to make the total of 88 in the tenor part; this is also the result of adding up the number equivalents of the letters which make up 'Desprez' (...). Josquin has thus embedded his own name with that of the Virgin Mary in a piece which celebrates her various virtues" (booklet). Another case is Pater noster/Ave Maria which should be sung outside his house during processions after his death. It is fitting that Josquin is represented here with three motets which are all connected to the veneration of Mary.

Victoria lived in Rome from the mid-1560s to the mid-1580s, first as a student at the Collegio Germanico, then as a singer, teacher and composer. Towards the end of his Roman sojourn, he published one of his most admired collections of music, the Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae, which consists of music for Holy Week, including eighteen Tenebrae Responsories, which are performed often in our time and are well represented on disc. Here we get the six Responsories for Holy Saturday; some of the most poignant are O vos omnes and Ecce quomodo moritur justus. The programme ends with one of his motets for double choir, Salve Regina, from a collection published in 1581. This attests to the tradition of writing for double choir in Rome, somewhat different from that in Venice. Although Victoria's music is written in the Roman tradition and shows much affinity with the oeuvre of Palestrina, he also represents a voice of his own: his music has an emotional flavour often lacking in that of the likes of Palestrina. That is amply demonstrated in his music for Holy Week, but also in this motet. The writing for double choir is used here to create a strong sense of excitement. The two choirs fittingly join at the closing phrases: "O kind, O merciful, O sweet Virgin Mary". The veneration of Mary was in Spain just as important as it was for Josquin.

The two pieces by Felice Anerio attest to the double-choir tradition in Rome. Both the Litaniae Beatissimae Virginis Mariae and the motet Regina caeli laetare are for eight voices in two choirs. In the case of the former, the splitting of the vocal forces into two sections was quite common, as it allowed for a division of the text over two groups, creating a kind of dialogue: "Mater Christi - ora pro nobis; Mater purissima - ora pro nobis" etc. The latter is a motet for Easter, and the effects of two choirs are perfectly suited to express the joy over Christ's resurrection.

Gregorio Allegri is one of the most famous composers in history, if only for one work: the Miserere. It is a piece for nine voices, split into two groups of four solo voices and five-part tutti. It is one of the most frequently-performed choral works in our time, but it is seldom heard in the original version. It was already famous in its own time, and one of the reasons was the addition of embellishments by the performers. These were either improvised or written down, but the latter were kept secret. Today we usually hear versions which have very little to do with the practice in Allegri's time, including the 'top C' that in the 17th century nobody was interested in. Rather than trying to go back to the original, Christophers opted for a version which goes from the first version by Allegri to a modern version. The aim of this recording to show its evolution in the course of time. This is undoubtedly interesting, but rather unsatisfying from a historical and musical point of view. It could serve as an illustration of research on this piece,as Ben Byram-Wigfield has done (which was the starting point of this recording and is available for free here), but as part of his programme I would have preferred one version, preferably one from Allegri's time. Allegri's mastery of the technique of cori spezzati is demonstrated with the Gloria from his Missa In lectulo meo.

As I wrote, The Sixteen has recorded many pieces of Renaissance polyphony, and in recent years a series of discs with music by Palestrina was released. Overall I assessed them positively, even though one should not expect any new insights into performance practice of his music. However, Palestrina seems to suit the ensemble well, and that may well be due to the rather detached nature of his music. One should not expect any outbursts of emotion in his output, at neither end of the scale of human feelings. That is different in Victoria, as I already indicated. That emotional flavour I referred to, is rather absent, or at least underexposed in these performances. I find the Tenebrae Responsories too bland; I have heard performances of greater emotional intensity. The pieces for double choir are rather well-done, and as far as Victoria is concerned, the Salve Regina comes off best.

The towering figure of Palestrina is not involved in The Sixteen's programme, but is the eavesdropper in the background. He is in the centre of the second disc, which seems only to include one of his masses, namely his most famous, the Missa Papae Marcelli. One wonders why this work, which probably has been recorded more often than any other of Palestrina's works, deserves another recording. There are tw specific reasons for that. One is mentioned at the rear of the simple folder with which this disc comes: "In honor of Bruno Turner". Turner has played a key role in the rediscovery of renaissance polyphony and has edited and published quite a number of scores. To the older lovers of early music he may be best known as the director of the famous vocal ensemble Pro Cantione Antiqua London in a number of recordings for Archiv. The man behind the fra bernardo label, Bernhard Trebuch, until a few years ago the 'early music man' of Austrian radio ORF (a few years ago he was kicked out), wrote a personal tribute to Turner in the booklet. (Why he uses the American spelling 'honor' for a tribute to a very British musicologist is a mystery to me.)

There is another reason, and that is connected to the line-up with male voices only. How is this possible, as both upper voices go up to high g''? "Knowledgeable readers will immediately counter this with the fact that the lowest voice is written in tenor rather than bass clef. This very particular kind of notation, known as chiavette, signals that the mass should be transposed downward in performance. So today the piece is usually sung a fourth or fifth too high". I have to take Trebuch's word for it, as I don't know all recordings in the catalogue. As in most recordings the mass is sung by a choir, he is probably right. He then mentions the issue of tempo. "[The] Kyrie starts in tempus perfectum diminutum, generally called alla breve nowadays. Simply put, the breve - like a double whole note - becomes the pulse. If this pulse, the so-called 'beat', is compared to the human pulse, almost all performances of Palestrina's most famous mass are far too slow. But to be fair, tempo is always relative, whereas pulse (i.e. 'beat') is extremely important, especially in terms of interpretation". Again, that is impossible for me to check. However, a random check at Muziekweb reveals that the recordings in the catalogue widely differ in their timings. There are several recordings in which the Kyrie (and sometimes also the Gloria) are not very different in tempo from those of Beauty Farm. In several recordings the other sections take considerably more time. From that one has to conclude that in those performances directors opted for substantial fluctuations in the pulse. On the other hand, some recordings are pretty close to what we get here.

The tempi here are not audibly fast, but it probably depends on how often one listens to this mass, whether one experiences these tempi as fast or 'normal'. It is a useful alternative to most existing recordings anyway, and that probably also goes for the line-up (Odhecaton is comparable with this recording: the upper parts are sung by male altos as well, but the number of singers is considerably larger). The singing is pretty good, but I find the miking rather uncomfortably close. A little more distance and a bit more reverberation would have had a positive effect. The sections of the mass are alternated by plainchant. Here I find the singing a little less convincing: singing plainchant and polyphony is not exactly the same. There is a reason that plainchant - for instance in 'liturgical reconstructions' - is often sung by specialized ensembles. Whereas in the mass the singers show their command of legato, in the plainchant there is sometimes a tendency to chop lines; the legato is sometimes less fluent. Here the close miking is even less comfortable. I also don't quite understand why the plainchant was included (instead of, for instance, motets by Palestrina) and why these specific chants were selected, as liturgically they have nothing in common.

To conclude, this disc is musically not entirely satisfying and convincing, but it is at least an interesting approach to one of the monuments in music history.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

The Sixteen

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