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"Veni Domine - Advent & Christmas ad the Sistine Chapel"

Cecilia Bartoli, mezzo-sopranoa
Sistine Chapel Choir
Dir: Massimo Palombella

rec: Feb, May & Sept 2017, Vatican, Sistine Chapel
Deutsche Grammophon - 479 7524 (© 2017) (64'36")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/I; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

[in order of appearance]
[Advent] plainchant: Gaudete in Domino semper; PEROTINUS (fl c1200): Beata viscera Mariae Virginisa; Guillaume DUFAY (1397-1474): Conditor alme siderum a 5; JOSQUIN DESPREZ (c1455-1521): Missus est Gabriel a 4; Giovanni Pierluigi DA PALESTRINA (c1525-1584): Canite tuba in Sion - Rorate caeli desuper a 5 [4]
[Christmas] Giovanni Maria NANINO (c1543-1607): Hodie nobis caelorum Rex - Gloria in excelsis Deo a 6; Giovanni Pierluigi DA PALESTRINA: Hodie Christus natus est a 8 [5]; Jean MOUTON (c1459-1522): Quaeramus cum pastoribus a 4; Tomás Luis DE VICTORIA (1548-1611): Quem vidistis pastores - Dicite, quidnam vidistis a 6 [6]; Giovanni Pierluigi DA PALESTRINA: Dies sanctificatus illuxit nobis a 4 [2]; Gregorio ALLEGRI (1582-1652): Nasceris, alme puer a 6; Luca MARENZIO (c1553-1599): Christe, redemptor omnium a 5; Tomás Luis DE VICTORIA: O magnum mysterium a 4 [3]
[Epiphany] Jacobus CLEMENS non Papa (c1510-c1556): Magi veniunt ab oriente - Magi, videntes stellam [1]; Giovanni Pierluigi DA PALESTRINA: Reges Tharsis et insulae a 5 [7]
[Feast of the Presentation of the Lord] Giovanni Pierluigi DA PALESTRINA: Diffusa est gratia a 5

Sources: [1] Jacobus Clemens non Papa, Liber Primus Cantionum Sacrarum Vulgo Moteta vocant, quatrorum vocum, 1559; [2] Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Motecta Festorum totius anni cum Communi Sanctorum, 1564; [3] Tomás Luis de Victoria, Motecta que partim quaternis, partim quinis, alia senis, alia octonis vocibus concinuntur, 1572; Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, [4] Motettorum qua partim quinis, partim senis, partim octonis vocibus concinantur, Liber Secundus, 1573; [5] Motettorum qua partim quinis, partim senis, partim octonis vocibus concinantur, Liber Tertius, 1575; [6] Tomás Luis de Victoria, Motecta Festorum totius Anni cum Communi Sanctorum, 1585; [7] Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Offertoria totius anni, 1594

Christmas is one of the major feasts of the Christian church. This has resulted in a large repertoire for this time of the year, including the preceding period of Advent, and the weeks following Christmas, known as Epiphany. Through the ages the character of such repertoire has greatly changed. Especially since the 18th century, when Italian composers wrote instrumental concertos to be performed during Christmas night, Christmas is connected with a specific 'sound'. In addition, a large repertoire of 'popular' Christmas carols has come into existence, which has further added to a particular 'atmosphere'. The music performed on the present disc by the Sistine Chapel Choir is very different.

Massimo Palombella, in his liner-notes, touches this issue. "[The] musical Christmas atmosphere to which works of the late Baroque onwards have accustomed us is not to be found in Renaissance output, where the main concern seems instead to be that of a theological positioning of the Incarnation in relation to the rest of the life of Christ. In that cultural climate, Christmas was inextricably linked with Easter, the completion of the Incarnation, and generally - almost as a kind of "aftertaste" - the Passion and death of Christ are perceptible in the background. This is echoed in the iconography of the day, where portrayals of the Nativity depict the Christ Child lying in a manger in the shape of a sarcophagus, underlining the message that this newborn would one day have to die for our salvation." In addition to the obvious stylistic differences between the music of the renaissance and that of the baroque period, this connection between the birth of Christ and his Passion strongly influences the character and the 'mood' of the repertoire performed here.

The programme is divided into three sections: Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. In the programme are some of the main composers of the 15th and 16th centuries, starting with an excursion into a much earlier time: Perotinus' Beati viscera, a conductus for one voice, dates from around 1200. It is the odd one out in this programme of music, taken from the archives of the Sistine Chapel, as Perotinus was a representative of the so-called Notre Dame School. It seems unlikely that the music which was performed at the Notre Dame at that time was known anywhere else. Plainchant is also an important element in the programme: it is the basic repertoire of the Catholic church since ancient times, and it still is, at least in the Sistine Chapel. Some of the pieces sung here are very well known, such as Mouton's Quaeramus cum pastoribus, Palestrina's Hodie Christus natus est and Victoria's O magnum mysterium. However, there are also some first recordings. The hymn Conditor alme syderum by Dufay is performed here for the first time in its complete version and Christe, redemptor omnium, a hymn in a setting of Luca Marenzio, is entirely new to the catalogue. In addition, Gregorio Allegri's motet Nasceris, alme puer is performed according to a new critical edition.

The latter is part of the process of renewal which took place in the Sistine Chapel in recent years, under the direction of Massimo Palombella. His approach to the performance of the repertoire of the Sistine Chapel Choir has resulted in two discs, which I reviewed last year. Part of that is a critical review of the material which has been in use for such a long time, on the basis of the original sources. Palombella also drastically changed the performance practice. I repeat here my summary in the previous review. 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 (...)". (The quotations are from the liner-notes of the discs reviewed there.)

This is definitely a major change from the past, when performances of the choir were often rather painful, showing an old-fashioned approach to performance practice, but also major technical shortcomings. That is indeed something of the past. The choir seems to be in excellent shape these days, and because of a more up-to-date approach to the repertoire of the renaissance, it is now a force to be reckoned with in the world of early music.

That does not mean that there is no reason for criticism. That starts here with the decision to involve Cecilia Bartoli in this recording. I don't know who's idea it was: the liner-notes don't touch the issue, and it may well be the initiative of Deutsche Grammophon for commercial reasons. However, it was a pretty bad idea. Fortunately she only sings most of Perotin's Beati viscera, but it is completely unstylish, as even here she can't avoid her usual vibrato, even though it is not as wide and obtrusive as in other recordings. Another thing is the use of dynamics, as mentioned before. This can become quite stereotypical - in this recording it almost constantly gets back and forth, and I sometimes felt a bit unease about it.

A third issue is the view on music of the past. "Recording a repertoire labelled "early music" is not some kind of archaeological operation, nor is it an exercise in nostalgia, or even simply a cultural decision. It is a response to a desire to revive an ancient and therefore precious sound, one that has survived and borne fruit over the centuries, and so remains pertinent and "alive". Basically I sympathise with this view: early music may be something from the past, it is still able to touch a modern audience, as the popularity of early music festivals shows. In this case, however, this view results in an odd and rather disappointing decision in regard to the use of plainchant. Rather than turn to historical sources from the time the polyphonic pieces on this disc were written, Palombella decided to use the texts and melodies included in the Liber hymnarius of Solemnes (1983), the official hymnal revised in accord with the reforms of Vatican II. Here we meet the limitations of an ensemble whose first aim is to keep the daily liturgical practice alive. One could compare this with the recordings of Iberian polyphony by the Choir of Westminster Cathedral, whose interpretations reflect regular liturgical practice rather than historical considerations. A strictly historical approach includes being aware of when and where music was performed, taking into account the considerable differences in plainchant during the renaissance period across Europe. I also wonder whether plainchant and polyphony should be sung differently. That is a common habit based on the idea that these are different categories. That idea seems to be foreign to the renaissance period (or the baroque era, for that matter). The use of 'modern' plainchant only strengthens the idea that they have to be sung in different ways.

All that said, I certainly have enjoyed these performances, with the exception of Perotin. The choir comprises fine voices, the ensemble is very good and more than in other recordings the moments where the text is illustrated in the music - albeit in a modest way - come off in these performances. In some pieces the upper voice is taken by two male altos; they are not entirely free of stress in some passages.

The booklet includes informative liner-notes by Palombella, but it is a substantial shortcoming that his annotation is included only in Italian, and has not been translated, in contrast to the liner-notes and the lyrics. That is a bit of a blunder of Deutsche Grammophon.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Sistine Chapel Choir

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