Choir Of Westminster Cathedral
Conductor - James O'Donnell
Recorded in Westminster Cathedral 12-15 February 1991
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'... an austere serenity almost unique in post-medieval Christian art.'
'Pales trina sought in all things perfect balance.'
These two quotations, from Curt Sachs and Gustave Reese, sum up neatly the outstanding spiritual and technical qualities of Palestrina's music, expressing for us, as for so many in the past, that instinctive feeling that it has a heavenly quality. More down to earth, those qualities of serenity and balance can be identified as superb control of structure, like strategic planning, and flawless attention to detail, like tactical efficiency. So very often one finds the word 'felicity' - happy appropriateness, absolute lightness - describing Palestrina's numerous works that qualify as great.
This long revered archetype of the Roman Catholic liturgical composer has had his critics - not denigrators, but those who, perhaps rightly, saw him unfairly placed on a pedestal wrongly overshadowing many deserving the same acclaim. Yet, through four centuries and as strongly as ever now, Palestrina's works keep coming back to impress, to move and uplift, spiritually refreshing and musically astonishing.
In the present recording, Westminster Cathedral Choir presents some of Palestrina's most loved and often quoted music. The opening melody of Sicut cervus, presented voice by voice, has been a favourite of writers demonstrating the typical 'gradual rise in the melodic line followed by a fall that balances it with almost mathematical exactness' (Reese, Music in the Renaissance, p462). The famous Super flumina Babylonis is a perfect example of the master's ability to produce a completely unified and well proportioned whole that has within it a series of clearly defined sections each characterizing and expressing the text, gently propelling the words with musical expression. That he can do this so effectively within a growth that seems quite natural and organic is precisely why our admiration has remained loyal for four hundred years. These are not the desultory lightning flashes of a Gesualdo, nor the startling dramas that dazzle in the sounds of Lassus. Within Palestrina's calm unfolding there is an enormous confidence and a feeling of strength. A philosopher theologian once remarked to the present writer that Palestrina's music seemed made by a man without worries.
The Missa Aeterna Christi munera has been a favourite of church choirs for good reasons: its classic simplicity, its brevity, its clear singability and its four voice parts (only the second Agnus Dei divides the tenors). It is based on three melodic strands taken from the tune which gives the mass its title, the hymn for Matins of Apostles and Evangelists; the fourth line of the verses has a repeat of the first line's melody. Palestrina employs these themes in turn in the opening Kyrie - Christe - Kyrie sections, passing them from voice to voice, transforming and elaborating them. He uses them in the wordy Gloria and Credo in a less complicated way, alluding to them mainly in the top voice. In the later movements, Palestrina gently plays his variations in the most serene way, until, finally, in his second Agnus Dei, he produces a passage of great tranquillity as he groups the voices in parallel at 'dona nobis pacem', a moment that has captivated generations of singers.
To precede the mass itself, we have given the complete Matins hymn in the version which Palestrina would surely have known at the Julian Chapel (he was there from 1571). The music and text have been edited specially for this recording from a Julian Chapel manuscript of 1564 (Capp. Giulia XIV.7). The mass is a mature work first printed in Palestrina's Fifth Book of Masses (1590).
After the Sicut cervus and Super flumina, both published in 1581, we hear his earlier but confident vision of the Apocalypse - Vidi turbam magnam, for six-part choir. This has Palestrina in vigorous form, constantly using word-driven accents on weak beats to keep a great momentum; there is here a special grandeur of sonority that Palestrina used for portentous texts like this. In it, and in his double-choir Magnificat which ends the recording, the composer is constantly changing the texture and colour of the music by re-grouping his vocal forces in different combinations. There is never a monotony of thick polyphony.
All the music so far discussed is liturgical or votive within the liturgy, that is to say normally usable as part of the Roman Rite. The group of motets from the 'Song of Songs' is of extra-liturgical pieces intended for devotional use, possibly in church but probably intended for devout recreation. Church music in the liturgical sense or not, Palestrina's set of twenty-nine motets on selections from the 'Song of Songs' (Canticum Canticorum, 'The Song of Solomon') were tremendously popular in his own time; after its publication in 1584 it was reprinted frequently until nearly ten years after the composer's death. There seems little doubt that Palestrina knew well and subscribed to the church's allegorical interpretation of these extraordinary Hebrew love poems. Removed from carnality by Jewish and Christian acceptance in the Bible, transformed by doctrine into the union of Christ and His Spouse the Church, ritualised by the Latin and woven into the medieval tapestry of Marian mythology, the 'Song of Songs' still spell-binds in Palestrina's delicate hands as he balances between the sacred and the erotic.
Suffice to say that performances of these extraordinary pieces may emphasise either the intimate, secular and madrigalian side of the music or stress their public, sacred and motet-like nature. There can be no doubt that in Quae est ista Palestrina has in his mind the Catholic vision of the Virgin ascending in triumph, her foot on the crescent moon, crushing the serpent of evil. Yet in Duo ubera something strange and mysterious seems to have happened. Has the lofty Palestrina let his guard down for once? Is there something private, deep in there, that Palestrina should sing so passionately .. . 'the hair of your head is like royal purple braided in strands'? Fancifiil perhaps, but the more you go into Palestrina's music the more full of wonders it seems to be.
1991, Bruno Turner