musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Roman polyphony

[I] "Cantate Domino - La Cappella Sistina e la musica dei Papi"
Sistine Chapel Choir
Dir: Massimo Palombella
rec: March & May 2015, Rome, Vatican (Sistine Chapel)
DGG - 479 5300 (© 2015) (59'03")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/I; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Gregorio ALLEGRI (1582-1652): Miserere mei Deus a 9; Felice ANERIO (c1560-1614): Christus factus est pro nobis a 4; Orlandus LASSUS (1532-1594): Jubilate Deo a 4 [4]; Magnificat 8. toni a 4 [1]; Giovanni Pierluigi DA PALESTRINA (c1525-1594): Ad te levavi a 5 [6]; Adoramus te Christe a 4; Angelus Domini a 5 [6]; Constitues eos principes a 5 [6]; Improperium exspectavit cor meum a 5 [6]; Nunc dimittis a 4 (attr); Sicut cervus a 4 [3]; Super flumina Babylonis a 4 [3]; Tu es Petrus a 6 [2]; plainchant: Christus factus est pro nobis; Lumen ad revelationem gentium; Rorate caeli desuper; Tomás Luis DE VICTORIA (1548-1611): Popule meus a 4 [5]

Sources: [1] Orlandus Lassus, Magnificat octo tonorum, 1567; Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, [2] Motettorum liber secundus, 1572; [3] Motectorum liber secundus, 1584; [4] Orlandus Lassus, Sacrae cantiones ... recens singulari industria compositae, 1585; [5] Tomás Luis de Victoria, Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae, 1585; [6] Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Offertoria totius anni secundum Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae consuetudinem, 1593

[II] Giovanni Pierluigi DA PALESTRINA (c1525 - 1594): "Missa Papae Marcelli, Motets"
Sistine Chapel Choir
Dir: Massimo Palombella
rec: Feb & April 2016, Rome, Vatican (Sistine Chapel)
DGG - 479 6131 (© 2016) (60'29")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/I; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Ad te levavi oculos meos a 4 [3]; Ave Maria a 4; Benedixisti, Domine a 5; Confirma hoc, Deus a 5; Confitemini Domino a 4 [3]; Jubilate Deo a 5 [2]; Missa Papae Marcelli a 6 [1]; O bone Jesu a 4; Tu es pastor ovium a 5; Veritas mea et misericordia mea a 5;

Sources: [1] Missarum liber secundus, 1567; [2] Motettorum liber tertius, 1575; [3] Motectorum liber secundus, 1584

[III] "Roma aeterna"
New York Polyphony
rec: August 2015, Omaha, NE (USA), St Cecilia Cathedral
BIS - 2203 (© 2016) (72'07")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Francisco GUERRERO (1528-1599): Regina caeli a 4 [1]; Giovanni Pierluigi DA PALESTRINA (c1525-1594): Sicut cervus a 4 [4]; Missa Papae Marcelli a 6ab; Tu es Petrus a 6ab [2]; Tomás Luis DE VICTORIA (1548-1611): Missa O quam gloriosum a 4 [3]

Sources: [1] Francisco Guerrero, Sacrae cantiones, vulgo moteta nuncupata, 1555; [2] Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Motettorum liber secundus, 1572; [3] Tomás Luis de Victoria, Missarum libri duo, 1583; [4] Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Motectorum liber secundus, 1584

Geoffrey Williams, alto; Steven Caldicott Wilson, tenor; Christopher Dylan Herbert, baritone; Craig Phillips, bass
with: Tim Keeler, altoab; Andrew Fuchs, tenorab; Jonathan Woody, bass-baritoneab

Years ago I heard a performance by the Sistine Chapel Choir, which I had never heard before. I was quite shocked about the appalling quality of the singing. Heavy vibrato all over the place, no blending of the voices and no ensemble, and regularly out of tune. No wonder the choir was often called the 'Sistine screamers'. The second half of the 20th century is generally considered a period of decline, not only in quality but also in the approach to the repertoire. The results of research which resulted in historical performance practice, were completely ignored.

How different is the situation right now. In December 2016 one of the members of the choir, the British bass Mark Spyropoulos, told The Guardian how much the choir has changed since 2010, under the direction of Massimo Palombella. "Maestro Palombella was appointed by Pope Benedict in 2010 under strict instruction to transform this ancient institution into a world-class choir. The unfortunate "Sistine screamers" tag had come about because over the past few decades the choir had grown in size and had moved from the small chapel into the vast St Peter's Basilica, and was singing Palestrina and our revered Renaissance heritage as if it were bel canto opera, and this was being broadcast around the world live on Vatican Radio and TV."

The two discs reviewed here document the results of historical performance making its entrance within the walls of the Vatican. In his liner-notes to both discs Palombella sums up some key elements in his approach to interpretation. He replaced the altos with tenors singing in the altus range and the application of the rules of transposition, "which enables each singer to stay within comfortable limits, without forcing the voice." In addition he said goodbye to modern pitch and equal temperament. Much attention is paid to the text, through phrasing and articulation. Palombella emphasizes that some aspects of performance practice were never written down, because they were part of common knowledge; it was "implicitly communicated in Renaissance writing (e.g. tactus, or beat, rhetorical figures, the use of notational coloration to indicate modified rhythmic values - minor color, for example)." He mentions the differentiations of tempi and in expression and dynamics. "[We] make careful use of affetti and the technique of messa di voce: when properly applied, in the service of the text, these aesthetic aspects inject life, pulse and colour into the sacred music of the Renaissance (...)".

But, as I have often concluded listening to recordings or attending performances, substantial aspects of historical performance practice are nullified in unsuitable acoustical circumstances. In fact, to a large extent the latter is an integral part of performance practice which unfortunately is too often ignored. That is clearly demonstrated in these two recordings. Both took place in the Sistine Chapel, but the sound is very different. In the first recording, "Cantate Domino", one is struck by the large reverberation which makes the text very hard to understand. That is very different on the Palestrina disc. It seems likely that the Sistine Chapel's acoustic has considerably changed with time. "In our quest for an authentic sound, we put down carpets in the Sistine Chapel for recording in order to soften the reverberation, as we know that in Palestrina's time there would have been the Raphael tapestries (now in the next-door Vatican museum) on the wall which would have affected the acoustic", Mark Spyropoulos says. This has clearly paid off, because on the Palestrina disc the audibility of the text has vastly improved.

Historical performance practice has never been confined to the way music was performed, but also affected the music itself. That is the case here too. On the "Cantata Domino" disc it is the famous setting of the penitential psalm Miserere mei Deus by Allegri which is performed here in a completely different version from the one which has become so popular with choirs in modern times. Palombella has access to the Vatican's archives. Some years ago he found the earliest edition of this work. Spyropoulos: "Previously, everyone had been singing an edition from around 1900 that included the famous top Cs and elaborate ornamentation. But no Renaissance composer ever wrote a top C - that was an embellishment added by showing-off castrati. Prior to the codex being excavated from the Vatican's archives, no-one had ever heard what Allegri actually wrote. We recorded that here in the chapel itself, in the first ever studio recording made in the Sistine Chapel (...)". The differences are striking indeed, and "the recording attempts to reproduce the original spatial disposition of the voices (with the solo quartet singing from the Sala Regia, adjacent to the Sistine Chapel)" (track-list).

The Palestrina disc also includes some novelties. The most important concerns one of his most famous works, the Missa Papae Marcelli. Modern editions which are mostly used for performances and recordings include a 7-part Agnus Dei II, that is absent in the first edition of 1567 as well as in two copies from 1598 and 1599/1600 respectively. The edition of 1598 includes a note at the end of the Agnus Dei: "Agnus secundus dicitur [ut] supra Primus". This instruction to repeat the first Agnus Dei has been followed here; the words "miserere nobis" have been replaced by "dona nobis pacem" (the English translation says the opposite). Several other pieces are recorded here for the first time (Jubilate Deo, Veritas mea et misericordia mea) or for the first time with adult male voices only (Confitemini Domino). There is also something special about the Ave Maria which concludes this disc. For the recording of this piece " the choir stood, by way of experiment, in the Sistine Chapel choir gallery, rather than in front of the altar, and with three counter tenors rather than boy choristers singing the Cantus, or upper line. We believe this adds a unique and striking level of "aesthetic relevance" to the motet, and aligns it - as far as such a thing is possible - with the performance practice of its day."

That brings to a final observation in regard to these two discs. As 'authentic' as these recordings are - or pretend to be - one thing is different from the performance practice in Palestrina's time. Here we hear mostly a choir of boys and men, but in the 16th century there were no boys in the Sistine Chapel, only adult male singers. That is what Palombello refers to in his remarks on the recording of the Ave Maria. One may consider this a compromise between historical performance practice and everyday liturgical practice in our own time. That is also the case in regard to the performance of plainchant on the "Cantate Domino" disc as Palombello abides by the official edition of the Roman Gradual. It is very likely that in several respects plainchant in Palestrina's time was different.

It is interesting to see how the choir of the Sistine Chapel has changed within the span of a couple of years. In the "Cantate Domino" recording I noticed a slight vibrato in some of the voices now and then, but that has disappeared in the Palestrina recording. In the former the dynamic shades sometimes lack control and seem a bit exaggerated; in the Palestrina recording this is better balanced and thought-over. The difference in acoustic also has a striking and positive effect, as I already indicated above.

These discs are highly fascinating. I can't check whether Palombello's views on the performance practice in Palestrina's time are historically tenable, for instance in regard to dynamics. Hopefully his views and these two recordings will stimulate a debate on the performance practice of renaissance polyphony. There is too much uniformity in the way this repertoire is performed these days. A more differentiated approach, for instance according to time and region, may result in a more complete picture of this repertoire.

All in all, what happens in the Sistine Chapel is quite exciting as these two discs demonstrate. I am very much looking forward to the choir's next recordings.

The disc of New York Polyphony also includes Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli; it is performed here indeed with the 7-part Agnus Dei II. It is to be hoped that the original edition of this mass will be available through a printed edition in the near future, and probably also other works which today are performed in editions which derive from what the composer had in mind. The plus-point of this recording is that here we hear only adult male voices, in accordance to the practice in the Sistine Chapel in Palestrina's time. Whether masses and motets were sung with one voice per part as is the case with a number of pieces on this disc is probably impossible to say. It seems unlikely, but that is hard to prove (at least I don't have any firm information on this matter). The performances are also more straightforward, as is common in the interpretation of renaissance polyphony, and in particular of Palestrina's music. That has its virtues, and New York Polyphony sings beautifully. This recording is different from most other recordings in that the Ordinary has been extended by the Propers for Easter Day, sung in plainchant: Alleluia Pascha nostrum, the Offertory Terra tremuit and the Communion Pascha nostrum.

The programme opens with Francisco Guerrero's Regina caeli, a Marian antiphon which was especially sung in the Liturgy of the Hours during the Easter season. Guerrero, who was from Spain, never studied in Italy, but once visited Rome and his works were known and appreciated across Europe; this antiphon saw no fewer than three reprints during his lifetime. In contrast, Tomás Luis de Victoria did study in Rome, and may have been a pupil of Palestrina. He was one of the most appreciated composers of his time and his music was published in various editions. His Missa O quam gloriosum is a parody mass for which he turned to a motet of his own, written for All Saints' Day. Several sections of the Mass open with a rising fourth which is taken from the tenor part of the motet. This Mass is also performed in a kind of liturgical framework. Instead of Alleluia and Offertory we hear two motets on the text Gaudent in caelis by Victoria and Palestrina respectively: "The souls of the saints rejoice in heaven".

Two further motets by Palestrina, among them the famous Tu es Petrus which also closes the first of the above-mentioned discs of the Sistine Chapel Choir, round off this disc. Like on previous discs New York Polyphony impresses with its clean singing and excellent blending of the voices. The programme doesn't include first recordings but the inclusion of liturgical elements is praiseworthy. Lovers of renaissance polyphony certainly will like to add this disc to their collection.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

New York Polyphony

CD Reviews