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Giovanni Pierluigi DA PALESTRINA (c1525 - 1594): Sacred works

[I] "Volume 2"
The Sixteen
Dir: Harry Christophers
rec: Feb 2012, London, Church of St Alban the Martyr, Holborn
Coro - COR16105 ( 2012) (67'34")
Liner-notes: E/I; lyrics - translation: E
Cover & track-list

Christe redemptor omnium a 6 [5]; Hodie Christus natus est a 8 [2]; Magnificat 5. toni a 5; Missa Hodie Christus natus est a 8 [7]; Nigra sum sed formosa a 5 [4]; O magnum mysterium a 6 [1]; Osculetur me osculo oris tui a 5 [4]; Reges Tharsis a 5 [6]; Trahe me post te a 5 [4]; Tui sunt caeli a 5 [6]

Julie Cooper, Grace Davidson, Sally Dunkley, Kirsty Hopkins, Alexandra Kidgell, Charlotte Mobbs, soprano; Carolyn Trevor, contralto; Ian Aitkenhead, David Clegg, David Gould, Christopher Royall, alto; Simon Berridge, Jeremy Budd, Mark Dobell, Matthew Long, tenor; Ben Davies, Eamonn Dougan, Tim Jones, Rob Macdonald, bass

[II] "Volume 4"
The Sixteen
Dir: Harry Christophers
rec: Jan 2013, London, Church of St Alban the Martyr, Holborn
Coro - COR16114 ( 2013) (71'53")
Liner-notes: E/I; lyrics - translation: E
Cover & track-list

A solis ortus cardine a 5 [5]; Ad te levavi a 5 [6]; Ave regina caelorum a 8 [2]; Deus enim firmavit a 5 [6]; Ecce, tu pulcher, dilecte mi a 5 [4]; Fasciculus myrrhae dilectus meus mihi a 5 [4]; Introduxit me rex in cellam vinariam a 5 [4]; Jubilate Deo a 8 [2]; Magnificat 5. toni a 4; Missa O magnum mysterium a 5 [3]; Surge, illuminare a 8 [2]

Emma Brain-Gabbott, Julie Cooper, Grace Davidson, Rebecca Hickey, Kirsty Hopkins, Alexandra Kidgell, Charlotte Mobbs, soprano; David Clegg, Daniel Collins, Kim Porter, Christopher Royall, Sally Dunkley, Edward McMullan, alto; ' Simon Berridge, Jeremy Budd, Mark Dobell, Matthew Long, tenor; Ben Davies, Eamonn Dougan, Tim Jones, Rob Macdonald, bass

Sources: [1] Liber primus motettorum, 1569; [2] Motettorum liber tertius, 1575; [3] Missarum liber quartus, 1582; [4] Motettorum liber quartus ex Canticis canticorum, 1584; [5] Hymni totius anni secundum Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae consuetudinem, necnon hymni religionum, 1589; [6] Offertoria totius anni secundum Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae consuetudinem, 1593; [7] Missae quatuor, 1601


If I am not mistaken the music of Palestrina seems to be more frequently performed by church choirs, as part of the liturgy, than by choirs at concerts and on disc. Over the years I have heard many ensembles with Josquin, Gombert, Lassus, Victoria and music by English renaissance composers, but not often with music of Palestrina. The reason could be that he is not universally appreciated. I remember an article many years back about a choir whose members expressed their disliking of singing Palestrina. Apparently he is considered by some as rather boring and not very adventurous. From that angle the project of recording Palestrina's music by The Sixteen is a daring initiative. In his preface Harry Christophers assures the reader that it is not his purpose to record everything Palestrina has written - "that would be more than a lifetime's work considering he wrote 104 masses!". Every volume will include one mass and music which can thematically be connected to it, alongside extracts from his collection of settings of texts from the Song of Songs. So far four volumes have been released, and as every disc includes three of the latter collection of 29 motets, we may expect ten discs in this project. In this review I focus on the two discs which include music for Advent and Christmas. The two other volumes will be reviewed at a later date.

Palestrina's music is often connected to the ideals which were laid down by the Council of Trent. Anything mundane or impure should be avoided and texts should be clearly understandable. It is often thought that Palestrina's music is a direct reaction to the council's wishes, but in his liner-notes Martyn Imrie states that in fact these ideals found fertile soil. During the 16th century there was a general tendency towards a greater clarity and straightforwardness anyway. In the liner-notes of Volume 1 he mentions another factor: Palestrina's time saw an increasing demand of sacred music from private persons, to be sung in domestic surroundings. They were not well served by music which was so complicated that the scores could only be unlocked by professional singers.

These two discs include the two masses which Palestrina based on Christmas motets from his own pen, Hodie Christus natus est and O magnum mysterium. It is a bit odd that Volume 2 contains the former motet and the mass which is based upon it, whereas in the latter case motet and mass are split among Volumes 2 and 4. Hodie Christus natus est is a beautul and festive motet whose jubilant character comes off well in The Sixteen's performance. Every line ends with the word "noe", acting as a refrain. The triple time ending of the motet returns in the Mass in several places. This mass is for eight voices in two choirs of unequal scoring: Palestrina juxtaposes a high and a low choir.

Christe redemptor omnium is a Vesper hymn for Christmas, set for six voices with passages for reduced forces. It is an alternatim setting; the even verses are in plainchant. The last line of the fifth verse, "exulting in song", is illustrated by a lively rhythm. It is just one example of text illustration in Palestrina's music. These discs span the period from Advent to Epiphany. This is reflected in the choice of four offertories: Ad te levavi is for the first Sunday in Advent, Tui sunt caeli is for the Nativity and for Circumcision, Deus enim firmavit for Sunday in the Octave of the Nativity, and Reges Tharsis for the Feast of Epiphany.

O magnum mysterium is a motet is two parts; the second begins with the words "Quem vidistis pastores". Both end with the same line: "and choirs of angels praising God. Alleluia". Here Palestrina again juxtaposes duple and triple time, and this element returns in the Mass which is based on this motet. A solis ortus cardine is a hymn for the Feast of the Nativity. It is an acrostichon; Palestrina's setting is confined to verses one to seven, and it is again an alternatim setting as the even verses are in plainchant. Jubilate Deo is for eight voices in two choirs; this time the two choirs are of equal scoring.

Both discs include a setting of the Magnificat. A pretty large number of Magnificat settings are known from Palestrina's pen. Most of them are alternatim compositions. In some the odd verses are set, in others the even verses. In the Magnificat 5. toni in Volume 2 the plainchant - the even verses - is sung by the tenors and basses, in the Magnificat 5 toni in Volume 4 - the odd verses - by the whole ensemble in unisono. This is not explained in the booklet. The former setting is for five voices, but its texture shows that Palestrina's music was not to be performed with one voice per part. In the 12th verse the number of parts is extended to six. Moreover, whereas the Magnificat's basic scoring is SATTB, one verse has two treble parts and another verse two parts for basses.

Both discs include extracts from Palestrina's settings of texts from the Song of Songs which was a quite popular source for compositions in the 16th century. The texts and the character of Palestrina's settings make it unlikely that they were intended for liturgical use. These were likely sung in private surroundings, and that should probably have consequences for the way they are sung. They are recorded in the same venue as the rest of the programme; a more intimate atmosphere would have been preferable. I also think that the number of voices should have been reduced; these pieces seem to be well suited to one-voice-per-part performance. That said, The Sixteen manage to realize the intimacy and sensitivity of these pieces quite well. Ecce, tu pulcher es, dilecte mi is a good example.

One should not expect a new approach to Palestrina's music here. The Sixteen sing this music in the style we know from many recordings of this kind of repertoire, which is rather straightforward. There are dynamic contrasts and Harry Christophers manages to expose the various connections between text and music. In the Festival Early Music Utrecht 2011 I heard the Huelgas Ensemble sing Palestrina and I was struck by their approach. I was especially impressed by the treatment of dynamics which was very flexible and natural. Even in forte passages the sound remained transparent, more than is the case here. In such cases some vibrato creeps in in the lower voices which leads to a loss of transparency. I also don't see why jubilant passages should always be sung forte.

That said, there is much to enjoy here and I liked these performances better than I expected. I hope that future discs will include some of the lesser-known masses, and not just those which are already available on disc. Anyone who likes renaissance polyphony should consider this series of discs with music by a famous composer whose music deserves to be better known.

Johan van Veen ( 2013)

Relevant links:

The Sixteen

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