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Roma Ćterna
Francisco GUERRERO (1528-1599)
Regina Cćli for four voices [2:30]
Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA (1525-1594)
Missa Papć Marcelli for six voices [35:01]
Tu es Petrus for six voices [3:06]
Tomás Luis de VICTORIA  (1548-1611)
Missa O quam gloriosum for four voices [25:06]
Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA
Sicut cervus/Sitivit anima mea for four voices [5:39]
New York Polyphony
Tim Keeler (countertenor), Andrew Fuchs (tenor), Jonathan Woody (bass-baritone)
rec. August 2015, St Cecilia Cathedral, Omaha, USA.
Reviewed in surround.
BIS BIS-2203 SACD [72:07]

I first came across New York Polyphony with their excellent EndBeginning album (review), and am by no means the only person to become an instant fan and eager to hear what these gents will do with further repertoire. Warmly welcomed by David Billinge, Brian Wilson in his last ever Download News page was however a little more circumspect, drawing on comparisons to conclude that the “perfectly polished” results wouldn’t be his ideal for this music. I can see or indeed hear his point, and if first impressions are to be relied upon then it might possibly be a lack of devotional passion in the performance of Palestrina’s exquisite Missa Papć Marcelli, but is this really the case?

Developing this point, I am sure ‘passionate performance’ would have been the least desirable thing in terms of Church use, but over the span of the performance I found it a challenge to spot significant differences between the mass movements as a whole. Everything is very beautifully performed, but if this is compared with the contrasts and layers of textual implication communicated by, say, the Oxford Camerata directed by Jeremy Summerly on the Naxos label, then you will hear a more outspoken use of the Latin text in propelling the message of the music. This is not to say that the reinforced New York Polyphony voices are flat and uninvolving. Comparing the Gloria made me realise how much subtle inner detail there is in this performance, so if greater restraint and a more enigmatically ecclesiastical view suits your mood then this is a version in which you can become truly immersed. Perhaps it is this position, suspended somewhere between an idea of period Church authenticity and concert performance, that curbs maximum enthusiasm.

One way in which this programme certainly adds value is in the liberal addition of plainchant in the Palestrina and extra motets in De Victoria’s Missa O quam gloriosum, not to mention the framing of the masses with shorter pieces such as Palestrina’s six-part Tu es Petrus with its antiphonal play between the upper and lower voices. Spanish by birth, Tomás Luis de Victoria was a big success in Rome, spending two decades there after a period of study, and succeeding Palestrina as chapel master of the Roman Seminary. Victoria’s Mass is more lively than Palestrina’s, less searching in its harmonies but still creating a tapestry of irresistible richness.

I seem to recall making this point before, but in their single-voice performances New York Polyphony distinctly avoid any suspicion of thinness in their sound. With excellent matching of timbre and intense detail in terms of expressive delivery, these male voices are all moving in the same direction musically so that the choral sound is greater in effect than you would expect. As ever, the more you dig into the substance of each piece the more there is to appreciate. You can just put this on at the end of a long day and enjoy it with a streaming bath and a glass of port, but it always proves rewarding at every level – from its polished surface to the limpid reflections deep within.

Dominy Clements

Previous review: Dave Billinge



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