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"Song of Songs - Canticum Salomonis"

Cappella Mariana
Dir: Vojtech Semerád

rec: August 16 - 18, 2017, Paray-le-Monial, La Chapelle de Romay
Et'cetera - KTC 1602 (© 2018) (57'22")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/CZ; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list
Scores Palestrina

Nicolas GOMBERT (c1495-c1560): Magnificat 6. et 1. toni; Quam pulchra es; Jean L'HÉRITIER (c1480-after 1551): Nigra sum sed formosa; JACHET de Mantua (1483-1559): Audi, dulcis amica mea; JOSQUIN DESPREZ (C1455-1512): Ave Maria ... virgo serena; Giovanni Pierluigi DA PALESTRINA (c1525-1594): Osculetur me [1]; Quam pulchra es [1]; Pulchrae sunt genae tuae [1]; Sicut lilium inter spinas [1]; Surge, propera amica formosa mea [1]; Trahe me post te [1]; Veni, dilecte mi [1]

[1] Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Motettorum liber quartus ex Canticis canticorum, 1584

Daniel Elgersma, alto; Vojtech Semerád, Tomás Lajtkep, tenor; Tomás Král, baritone; Jaromír Nosek, bass

In the course of history the texts from the Song of Songs - one of the books from the Old Testament - have exerted a strong attraction on composers. One reason for this is the expressive language with which the love of a young man and a young woman is described. Another - and probably more important - reason is the allegorical interpretation of these texts. The young man represented Christ, the young woman the Church, or - especially in mystic circles - the soul of the believer. When the veneration of the Virgin Mary developed, she took the role of the young woman, with Christ representing the Church. The fact that a number of texts entered the liturgy in the form of antiphons, indicates that the Church embraced the allegorical interpretation and considered the texts useful to strengthen the faith of the people. However, one cannot overlook a kind of dichotomy in the Church's attitude: various people who translated these texts into the vernacular came into conflict with the ecclesiastical authorities.

The Czech vocal ensemble Cappella Mariana has brought together a number of settings of verses from the Song of Songs. The core of the programme are the motets which Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina published in 1584 as his fourth book of motets (Motettorum liber quartus ex Canticis canticorum). The first edition's title doesn't refer in any way to the origin of the texts. The popularity of such compositions is reflected by the fact that this book was reprinted several times; later editions are more explicit about their character. It shows that the place of these pieces in the Christian church was a bit precarious. The collection of motets by Palestrina was not intended for liturgical use, but for domestic performance. This also explains their rather intimate character. Palestrina also composed several collections of madrigals, which are hardly known. These motets on texts from the Song of Songs give some idea of what Palestrina's madrigals are like. He certainly strikes the right chord here, and the texts are set in a sensitive and subtle way, such as Osculatur me, which opens with a phrase for just two voices. However, one should not expect very passionate music from Palestrina. He always keeps some distance to his subject in his liturgical music, and it is not really different here. The intimate character of these motets comes off wonderfully well in these performances. The ensemble makes no attempt to add some sensualism to Palestrina's motets, and rightly so. After all, he was guided by the spiritual interpretation of the texts.

The fact that Palestrina's motets were intended for private performance does not imply that this goes for the settings of other composers as well. These pieces were probably intended for liturgical use: several texts, such as Quam pulchra es, were part of Marian celebrations. The latter text is performed here in a setting by Nicolas Gombert. Two settings are by composers who are not that well known. Jean L'Héritier was from France, but worked for most of his life in Rome and Mantua. Jachet (or Jacquet) de Mantua was another composer from France, who was active in Italy, and especially in Mantua (hence the different spellings of his Christian name). Audi, dulcis amica mea seems to be a text that was not very frequently set in his time.

The spiritual interpretation of the Song of Songs and the fact that texts from it were included in Marian celebrations, justifies the addition of two pieces on texts from other sources. The penultimate piece is the most famous motet by Josquin Desprez and probably the most famous sacred piece from the renaissance: the four-part Ave Maria. It is sung by choirs and vocal ensembles all over the world and it almost never fails to make a strong impression. That is certainly the case here: four of the singers deliver a refined and very expressive interpretation without making it too sentimental, which is a bit of a danger, especially in the closing section: "O mater Dei, memento mei, Amen". Daniel Elgersma sings the upper voice with impressive ease and purity. This piece has a extrabiblical text, but the programme ends with the Magnificat, the Canticle of Mary, which is included in the gospel of St Luke. As most Magnificats, it is an alternatim setting, in which the verses are alternately sung in plainchant and in polyphony. The surprise comes in the very last bars, which include some hair-raising dissonants, something one doesn't expect to hear in the doxology of a liturgical piece, and certainly not in a work from the first half of the 16th century. Obviously a perfect intonation is needed, and this is one of the features of Cappella Mariana's performances.

Overall the singing of the five members is exquisite and the blending of the voices immaculate, without any of them losing its individual character. It is nice to hear the difference between the two tenors: Vojtech Semerád often in the tessitura of an hautecontre, as the French would call it, whereas Tomas Lajtkep moves into the range of the baritone. Likewise the baritone and the bass are clearly different, and above them sails the beautiful alto voice of Daniel Elgersma.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

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