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Song of Songs: Canticum Salomonis
Cappella Mariana/Vojtech Semerád
rec. La Chapelle de Romay, Paray-le-Monial, 2017
Texts and translations included.
ET’CETERA KTC1602 [57:20]

Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA (1525-1594)
Volume 7

Angelus Domini descendit de cœlo a 5 [8:05]
Ave maris stella [6:12]
In diebus illis [4:42]
Beatĉ Mariĉ Magdalenĉ [3:50]
Beata Barbara [8:06]
Song of Songs Nos. 19-21:
Adiuro vos filiĉ Ierusalem [2:53]
Caput eius aureum optimum [2:15]
Dilectus meus descendit in hortum suum [2:56]
Susanna ab improbis senibus [6:59]
Veni sponsa Christi [2:20]
Missa Ave Regina Cĉlorum [23:39]
The Sixteen/Harry Christophers
rec. Church of St Alban the Martyr, Holborn, London, 2017
Texts and translations included.
Reviewed as 24/96 download with pdf booklet from thesixteenshop.com.
CORO COR16155 [72:01]

The arrival of the Et’cetera CD for review serves as a timely reminder that I have not been keeping up with the ongoing series of Palestrina recordings from The Sixteen, each of which contains a selection from the Song of Songs, a Mass and some shorter pieces. I gave Volume 6, which contains Nos. 16-18, a brief welcome in 2015 and I had missed the recent Volume 7, which continues with Nos. 19-21 of the Song of Songs.

When the Coro project is complete, it may well become my benchmark recording; in the meantime, especially if you like the whole 29 motets in one place, Magnificat and Philip Cave will do fine on Linn BKD174 (formerly CKD174 – October 2009). Alternatively, for bargain-hunters, the Hilliard Ensemble who, though Erato Veritas spread their 1984 recording unnecessarily over two CDs, do add 29 minutes extra of spiritual madrigals by Palestrina and put the whole thing out for around £8 or less (5622392). Prior to the release of the Linn, that was my favourite recording in its earlier Virgin mid-price incarnation, though it now seems like Italian music viewed through North European spectacles, albeit that the performances are very sharp and accomplished.

The Song of Songs, also known as Canticles, is attributed to Solomon in the Bible, presumably in order to get the secular texts accepted in a sacred collection. Christian tradition allegorised the love story as a dialogue between Christ and his church – as per the headings to the King James translation – or the individual soul, while the rise of Marian devotion made the Virgin Mary the beloved soul.

The new Et’cetera recording gives us a selection of seven of Palestrina’s settings, interspersed with those of earlier renaissance composers, the programme rounded off with a Marian motet by Josquin and a Gombert setting of Mary’s canticle, the Magnificat. According to the notes, the intention of the programme is the creation of ‘a chequered image of Renaissance music and its beauty’. It’s a variant of a concert given in Utrecht a few months earlier, which my colleague Johan van Veen (JV) reviewed very favourably on his own website – review – and the CD receives a similarly warm welcome from me.

Rather than the Hilliards’ complete recording or that of Magnificat, or the ongoing Coro Palestrina, the nearest recording in concept comes from Stile Antico on Harmonia Mundi (Song of Songs, HMU807489). That collection casts its net even further than the new recording, though it contains just two of Palestrina’s settings, Osculetur me and Nigra sum. At 77:40, there’s also a good deal more music than Et’cetera give us, including L’Héritier’s Nigra sum and Gombert’s Quam pulchra es of the works on the new album.

For some unknown reason, I seem to have Stile Antico in mp3 only, and at 240k VBR, so not even full quality mp3. Even so, it sounds pretty good. Tempted as I am to download the lossless version from eclassical.com, that’s over-priced at $17.43, as is the Qobuz at £9.49, without booklet, when 7digital.com offer the same lossless download for £4.99, and Presto have the SACD for £12.98.

Regular readers will know that I am far from alone in having the greatest admiration for Stile Antico. If I have some reservations about their latest release, it stems from the chosen programming rather than the performances. (In a Strange Land, music by Byrd and contemporaries, HMM902266, review pending.) In Song of Songs they offer sensitive approaches to the individual pieces. Though the Palestrina settings are almost madrigalian in quality, they benefit from performances which stop short of the emotional intensity that the term may conjure. They seem to have been intended more for private performance than for a place in the liturgy and they are far more innig than Monteverdi’s settings of a few years later which were included with his 1610 Vespers publication.

Both Stile Antico and Cappella Mariana convey that inwardness beautifully. Not having knowingly encountered the latter before, I was unsure what to expect, but I need not have worried: Gary Higginson welcomed their recording of music from Codex Specialinik – review. They play things pretty cool throughout the new programme, but that’s because they haven’t included anything as intense as the two Victoria works contained on the Harmonia Mundi recording.

In the three works common to the two programmes, Stile Antico give the music rather more time to breathe, but I really can’t decide between the two. You may think that the all-male performance from Cappella Mariana, just five voices, with counter-tenor on the top line, tilts the balance; from Stile Antico the presence of female voices and a slightly larger ensemble of 12 voices is evident. If anything, too, Cappella Mariana achieve a smoother, more purely beautiful tone. If they tend to an evenness of texture, that’s not to suggest that there’s anything dry or academic in these performances.

The Gombert settings of the Magnificat, together with associated Vespers music, have been recorded by The Tallis Scholars on a pair of CDs available separately (CDGIM037 and 038). No.6 (sexti et primi toni, as recorded on Et’cetera) is included on the second disc. It’s also included on their 2-for-1 offering Perfect Polyphony (CDGIM213, around £13 or download from hyperion-records.co.uk for £7.99) and all eight of Gombert’s Magnificat settings are included in their special-price 4-CD set Sacred Music in the Renaissance 3 (GIMBX303: Bargain of the Month, effectively 4-for-2). The 4-CD set appears to be nearing exhaustion, but the download remains available, with pdf booklet, from hyperion-records.co.uk for £15.99, lossless, or £24, 24-bit.

That recording by The Tallis Scholars is pretty well unassailable and on the single CD the Magnificats have the advantage of being preceded and succeeded by appropriate antiphons, not included on the otherwise very recommendable 2- and 4-CD sets. On the other hand, GIMBX303 offers 24-bit sound, not available for the other incarnations, though the ‘ordinary’ 16-bit sounds pretty good. The new Et’cetera is also available only in CD or 16-bit format, but also sounds very good. As for the performance, it’s hardly surprising after the success of the rest of the programme that the Gombert challenges Peter Phillips’ team in all respects, including in what JV describes in his review of the live performance as the ‘hair raising’ dissonances.

The new Et’cetera release arose from a crowd-funding project. I’m pleased that it succeeded and grateful to those who made it possible, not least to the ensemble themselves. I hope that the CD sells sufficiently well for us to hear more from them in due course – perhaps including a further album of settings of the Song of Songs.

The chief raison d’être of the Coro album is the inclusion of the Mass Ave Regina cœlorum, only the second ever recording of that work, I believe. (The first, from Ensemble Officium directed by Wilfried Rombach, released in 2001, is available from Christophorus (CHR77334 on CD or CHR77236, download only). I haven’t heard that, but I liked the same team in Palestrina’s better-known Missa Papĉ Marcelli, though competition is very fierce there – DL Roundup August 2010.

Rather oddly, Coro included the motet Ave Regia cœlorum, on which the Mass is based, in their first volume rather than here. There would have been space to have repeated it, even though the CD is fairly full.

The old story about Palestrina saving polyphony with his Marcellus Mass is now seen as very unlikely, but his church music in general is as much a counter-reformation project as the Italian and Spanish religious art of the period, even if it avoids the worst excesses of mannerism and rococo. For something musically closer to the acid sharpness of El Greco, you need to turn to Victoria, whose 1605 Requiem The Sixteen have given us on a very fine recording (CORSACD16033 or COR16089, Victoria Collection, 4-CD set).

The Sixteen give Palestrina’s music plenty of time to breathe, sometimes a little at the expense of vitality. The opening work describes the resurrection and, while I like performances of Song of Songs to be thoughtful, surely The Sixteen could have been a little more excited about this great event – the greatest in history for believers and, presumably, for Palestrina. This is not the same as the shorter setting of the same text, also in 5 parts, included in Coro’s earlier Music from the Sistine Chapel, on Hyperion CDA67978, and on some other recordings, so I have no comparison, merely a feeling that something a little more unbuttoned might have been preferable.

In fact, it’s one of the real pluses about this album that so many of the pieces seem to have no rivals in the current catalogue. That’s true, for example, of Palestrina’s setting of the text Susanna ab improbis senibus*, recounting the story of the elders who lusted after Susanna and then gave false witness against her, as included in the Greek translation of the Book of Daniel. Palestrina’s rather bald text fillets out phrases and sentences from the Vulgate translation, leaving out the intervention of Daniel completely and the execution of the elders – for the full story, see Handel’s Susanna and for the visual image Artemisia Gentileschi’s painting – so the composer didn’t have much opportunity for a dramatic setting. Nevertheless, here too I thought we might just have had a little more involvement from The Sixteen.

I want to emphasise that I enjoyed this volume as much as any of its predecessors, with extremely fine performances – what I’m asking for is that impossible little extra that groups like The Sixteen and The Tallis Scholars somehow manage to make possible so often. To put my comments in perspective, you need only compare The Sixteen in Veni sponsa Christi with the classic Argo recording by George Guest and St John’s College Choir, Cambridge (Decca 4832441, with Missa Veni sponsa Christi, download only, or 42-CD collection). Though Guest was by no means one of the old lumpen-style directors of Palestrina, at 50% longer than The Sixteen he sounds stolid by comparison with the Coro performance, which nevertheless in no way downplays the reverence of the music.

The Coro 24/96 download is very good and, though it costs a little more than the CD, it’s worth the extra – I won’t go on again about the illogicality of asking more for a download which doesn’t involve physical materials than for a disc which does. As I mentioned in my recent Winter 2018/19_1 survey, Coro downloads are very easy to purchase and download.

Two very worthwhile collections of renaissance music, then, one from very promising newcomers, the other part of a distinguished ongoing series.

* Arguably the earliest appearance in literature of the phrase 'dirty old men', though it sounds less blunt in Greek or Latin.

Brian Wilson

Contents (Et’cetera)
Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA (1525-1594)
Motettorum quinque vocibus liber quartus, Venice, 1584:
Osculetur me osculo oris sui [3:09]
Trahe me post te [2:57]
Jean L’HÉRITIER (c.1480-after 1551)
Nigra sum sed formosa (5vv) [5:02]
Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA
Pulchrĉ sunt genĉ tuĉ [3:03]
Jachet de MANTUA (1483-1559)
Audi, dulcis amica mea [7:21]
Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA
Sicut lilium inter spinas [3:13]
Nicolas GOMBERT (c.1495-c.1560)
Quam pulchra es [5:30]
Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA
Surge, propera amica formosa mea [2:36]
Quam pulchra es [3:11]
Veni, dilecte mi [3:06]
Josquin DESPREZ (c.1450-1521)
Ave Maria / Virgo serena [4:56]
Nicolas GOMBERT
Magnificat Sexti et Primi Toni [13:10]

 



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