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Giovanni Pierluigi DA PALESTRINA (1525/26 - 1594): Missa Tu es Petrus

The Choir of Westminster Cathedral
Dir: Martin Baker

rec: March 2 - 3 & 9 - 10, 2009, London, Westminster Cathedral
Hyperion - CDA67785 (© 2010) (77'49")

Giovanni Pierluigi DA PALESTRINA: Missa Te Deum laudamus a 6 [2]; Missa Tu es Petrus a 6; Tu es Petrus a 6 [1]; Tomás Luis DE VICTORIA (1548-1611): Te Deum laudamus a 4 [3]

Sources: Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, [1] Motettorum liber secundus, 1572; [2] Missarum liber nonus, 1599; [3] Tomás Luis de Victoria, Missae, Magnificat, motecta, psalmi et alia quam plurima, 1600

This disc brings together two composers who stood at the end of what we call the 'renaissance'. The combination of Victoria and Palestrina makes sense, as the former studied and worked for a considerable period in Rome, and - although probably not a pupil of Palestrina - was highly influenced by him. Whereas most composers of the renaissance sunk into oblivion in the next centuries, Palestrina always remained part of the liturgical repertoire of the Roman Catholic Church. In the 17th century the ecclesiastical authorities in Rome still preferred the stile antico over the extraverted concertante style which had become predominant in the music scene at large. Alessandro Scarlatti, for instance, characterised his sacred music as written "in the solid style of Palestrina". And Johann Sebastian Bach arranged one of Palestrina's masses. In the 19th century a renewed interest in Palestrina's music was largely driven by the unease about what was considered the decline of church music. Palestrina was increasingly considered the model of what liturgical music should be.

One of Palestrina's best-known pieces was his Missa Tu es Petrus, based on his equally famous motet. This hadn't only musical reasons, but it was also motivated by the content of the motet. Here lies the foundation of the very existance of the papacy. The pope claimed to be the successor of Petre, and therefore the foundation on which the church was built. It is therefore not surprising that this motet and the mass based upon it have been frequently recorded, even before the time early music became fashionable. It is more surprising that it has taken so long to see it being recorded by the Choir of Westminster Cathedral. After all, this is a Roman Catholic cathedral, and this mass must belong to the choir's standard repertoire. Over a number of years this choir has recorded a large number of sacred works of the 16th century, in particular by Palestrina and De Victoria, for Hyperion, first under the direction of David Hill and James O'Donnell respectively, and now under Martin Baker.

These recordings have always made a strong impression, firstly because of the quality of the choir, and secondly because of the fact that this music is performed as part of the liturgy rather than as concert music. That gives their performances a large amount of authenticity. To this the consitution of the choir with only male voices also contributes. At the same time, from a more historical and stylistic viewpoint some critical remarks are needed. To begin with, on this disc 20 choristers and 19 lay clerks participate, and that is very likely much beyond what was common in Palestrina's time. The sound is powerful and makes a strong impression, but the size of the choir goes at the cost of the transparency. That makes it sometimes hard to follow the lines of the polyphonic texture. That is, subsequently, made even harder because of the vibrato the lower voices are allowed to produce. In particular in those passages where the upper voices are silent the vibrato is rather obtrusive. Historically it is indefensible. From this angle this recording is more a reflection of a still living liturgical tradition than a testimony of a historical approach to the polyphony of the renaissance.

This is confirmed by the performance of the Te Deum laudamus by Victoria. This is an alternatim setting in which the verses are alternately sung in plainchant and in polyphony. The source of the plainchant is the Liber usualis which dates from the 19th century. It is questionable whether this version is in accordance with what was sung in Palestrina's time. The plainchant is performed by Nicholas Keay, acting as cantor, and singing with a slight wobble. Victoria's setting is followed by Palestrina's Missa Te Deum laudamus. This suggests the mass is using Victoria's work as cantus firmus but that is not the case. Palestrina has based his mass rather on the plainchant version of the Te Deum.

I don't want to give the impression that this recording isn't worth hearing. On the contrary, I am greatly admiring the recordings of polyphonic repertoire by this choir. Their qualities are impressive, and performances with male voices only are worthwhile anyway. If you buy this disc you won't be disappointed. That said, I believe attempts should be made to perform this repertoire with boys and men, but with less singers and with a style of singing which is more in line with what is known about the performance practice of the 16th century.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

Relevant links:

Choir of Westminster Cathedral

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