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Gregorio ALLEGRI (1582 - 1652): Masses, Miserere & Motets

The Choir of King's College London
Dir: David Trendell

rec: June 14 - 16, 2011, London, St John's Church, Upper Norwood
Delphian - DCD34103 ( 2012) (72'15")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translation: E
Cover & track-list

Gregorio ALLEGRI: Christus resurgens a 8; Miserere a 9a; Missa Christus resurgens a 8b; Missa In lectulo meo a 8; Pierre BONHOMME (c1555-1617): In lectulo meo

[solia] Marie Macklin, Poppy Ewence, soprano; Maria McCarthy, contralto; Joshua Edwards [cantor], Julian Leang, bass
Simon Hogan, organb

Gregorio Allegri is one of the best-known composers in history. That is not due to the fact that he has left us a large oeuvre or that he has had a lasting influence on the course of music history. It is due to the popularity of just one piece: his setting of the penitential psalm 50 (51), Miserere mei Deus. It has cult status, and has had so since the 18th century, but largely for the wrong reasons. The music which is so often performed by choirs, not the least by college and cathedral choirs in the United Kingdom, has little to do with the original composition. Soon after his death it was reworked, and that goes especially for the episodes for four solo voices. These were highly ornamented and in particular the high 'C' which for many is the main attraction of this work is contrary to the aesthetics of Allegri's time.

The popularity of the Miserere has largely overshadowed other parts of Allegri's oeuvre. It has also brought him the reputation of being rather conservative. That view is at least one-sided. His oeuvre includes music in the seconda prattica, scored for solo voices and basso continuo. The disc which The Cardinall's Musick devoted to Allegri and the music of other Roman composers includes one specimen of his output in this style. Moreover, in his writing of music in the stile antico - with Palestrina as its most prominent representative - he was not unique. Various composers in Rome wrote music in this style, not only in the 17th century, but well into the 18th. That was not so much a matter of choice but rather the effect of the ecclesiastical authorities being suspicious about the 'modern' style, especially as it was closely associated with opera. It needs to be added that the stile antico as written in the 17th century is not identical with the predominant style of the previous century. In his liner-notes to the present disc David Trendell states that "[the] Missa Christus resurgens culminates in two wonderfully spacious settings of the Agnus Dei with one or two telling dissonances in the 'miserere nobis' of the first setting that Palestrina might have put a red pen through, thus showing that the stile antico was not quite the static entity that some have claimed."

It is one of the two masses on this disc which shed light on another interesting feature of music practice in Rome: the writing for more than one choir. Polychorality is mostly associated with Venice, but Rome had its own tradition in this department. Palestrina's oeuvre includes some masses for eight voices, and the above-mentioned disc of The Cardinall's Musick centres around a mass for 12 voices, put together from the work of various composers, including Palestrina. However, there were some differences between the practice in Venice and in Rome. In Venice composers liked to juxtapose choirs of a different line-up, for instance a high versus a low choir. In Rome both choirs usually were of the same scoring: SATB. In both cities choirs could be supported by instruments. In Venice it was common practice to use cornetts, sackbuts and other instruments to play colla voce or to replace one or more voices. There is ample evidence that the practice in Rome was not very different. The use of organs in polychoral music is also documented. The question is whether this also goes for the music which was performed by the papal choir. That is relevant as it seems plausible to assume that the largest part of Allegri's music may have been written for this choir which he joined in 1629 as an alto singer. In 1650 he was appointed maestro di cappella.

Allegri is not a kind of epigone of Palestrina as David Trendell's statement indicates. That also comes to the fore in the way he makes use of polychorality. More than his predecessor he uses the two choirs to create an amount of splendour which is largely absent in Palestrina's masses for double choir. Whereas in the latter the two choirs sing long episodes independently, only to be put together towards the end, Allegri's masses have a more pronounced antiphonal character and the two choirs more frequently sing together.

The splendour of Allegri's masses comes well off here, but otherwise I am not impressed by these performances. The choir comprises almost 30 singers which seems rather big. However, I can't say with any amount of security that it is too big. The main problem is that the voices don't blend that well, which is partly due to the pretty wide and incessant vibrato in some of the voices. This also results in a lack of transparency. Add to this that the texts are hard to understand, and one will gather that this recording leaves something to be desired.

David Trendell writes at length about the inauthentic features of the version of Miserere mei Deus which is mostly sung these days. Therefore it is incomprehensible that this version is performed here. The fact that "there is an awkward leap of a tritone - at that time a forbidden interval - in the bass to take us to the new tonality and the high Cs" apparently was no obstacle to include it. What about artistic integrity?

This disc's shortcomings are such that I have to conclude with regret that an opportunity to liberate Allegri from the reputation of having written just one work worthy to be performed has been missed. Only diehard lovers of this kind of music will probably decide to purchase it.

Johan van Veen ( 2014)

Relevant links:

The Choir of King's College London


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