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Friday, May 01, 2009

Echos from the Papal Chapel

Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA (1525-1594)

Assumpta est Maria (7:19)
Missa Assumpta est Maria (29:42)
Ave Maria (3:33)
Beata est, Virgo Maria (2:56)
Hodie gloriosa semper Virgo Maria (4:57)
Regina coeli (6:22)
Magnificat Septimi toni (12:53)

Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
Timothy Brown

Recorded 8-10 January 1996 in the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral.

EMI 2 08120 2 [68:24]

Whether or not Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli saved polyphonic music from the scalpel of the Council of Trent is up for debate, but it certainly makes a great story; great enough that the late romantic composer Hans Pfitzner fleshed out the legend for his masterpiece of an opera, Palestrina. Fancy tale or none, the music of the Papal choirmaster has come to be the gold standard of sixteenth century compositional style, much in the way that the music of Sebastian Bach is regarded for the Baroque period.

Clarity is the key word here, and even in the eight part double choir motets represented here, texts are clearly understandable, and the music, serenely beautiful as it is, first and foremost serves the words as a vehicle for religious enlightenment and inspiration.

Palestrina published more than 150 mass settings, hundreds of motets and more than thirty settings of the Magnificat during his long and productive career. The mass at hand is based on the motet of the same name, which is in turn based on plainchant. The program is rounded out with four sumptuous double choir motets and a Magnificat setting, all of which are heavily indebted to chant.

Timothy Brown leads beautifully balanced performances with a great deal of attention to detail. Inner voices are often to the fore and the clear delivery of ornamental figures from the individual sections is quite remarkable indeed. The Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral is extremely reverberant and there are times when the sound, particularly in the lower registers borders on tubby, but this happens seldom and on the whole does not deter from the overall sound quality.

Given Palestrina’s necessary conservatism, it is often difficult to overcome the rather innate sameness in the music that can at times lead to listener boredom. Mr. Brown and his choir subvert this risk with careful attention to the rise and fall of lines and meticulous attention to enunciation. Add flawless intonation and an easy, unforced and natural beauty of tone to the mix and you get more than an hour of sublime music making.
At budget price, this is a steal, although one could wish for a bit more documentation. Essays are informative but all too brief.

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