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Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA (ca.1525-1594)
Missa Papae Marcelli [28:50]
Sicut cervus [6:00]
William BYRD (1543-1623)

Laudibus in sanctis [6:10]
Mass for five voices [24:50]
Hägersten Motet Choir/Ingemar Månsson
rec. 1980-1993, Swedish Radio and Notera Sagvik, locations and specific dates not given.
NOSAG RECORDS CD 006 [66:50]

Legend has it that Palestrina was hauled before the Council of Trent to present a work that would prove the viability of polyphony as a compositional method suitable to divine service. The Council was so impressed with his Pope Marcellus Mass that he saved contrapuntal writing from eternal damnation. Well, it did not quite happen that way, but Palestrina (who took the name of his birthplace as his surname) did have a hand in convincing the august Council that a move back to plainchant only in the mass was not necessary.

Through his simple and direct style, careful preparation and resolution of dissonance and expert manner of setting texts so as to be understandable, Palestrinaís music has become the textbook model for Renaissance polyphony. He composed more than one hundred mass settings and countless motets in a career that was dedicated almost exclusively to the church. Not known as a fine singer himself, he became famous for his compositions, although he never achieved the financial status of his British colleague William Byrd, who, along with Thomas Tallis held exclusive rights to publish music in all of England for most of his creative life.

This publishing monopoly has made it somewhat difficult to establish the authenticity of some of Byrdís work since, having sole rights to publish, he seldom bothered to put his name on the title page, if there was such a page at all. For many years the choirmaster of Lincoln cathedral, Byrd walked a fine and careful line as he was a Catholic servant to the very Protestant British crown. Known as much for his secular output, Byrd is credited with founding the English madrigal school, which culminated in the likes of Dowland, Morley, Weelkes and Wilbye.

This disc is a bit of a mystery, having been completed over a decade ago, and containing recordings that are as much as twenty years old. The rather plain cover art with its somewhat difficult to read fonts and layout comes off as rather amateurish on first glance, and I frankly was not expecting much.

What a pleasant surprise it was to find a recording of some of the great Renaissance masterworks performed with such warmth and attention to detail. The Hägersten Motet Choir is fine indeed, with a warm rich tone and fine blend. What is utterly remarkable about this group is the phenomenal sound of the men. I have not heard such perfectly matched singing from the male sections of a choir in years. The women are fine too, but one hears the occasional individual voice in their singing. The tenors and basses on the other hand sing with a unity of tone and peerless sense of ensemble. When they sing an entrance alone, it is simply breathtaking.

Ingemar Månsson founded this choir in 1959 and has been its leader since. He knows how to sculpt a phrase, and his careful choices of tempo and articulation accomplish quite splendidly the very difficult task of making an out of context mass performance interesting. Another nice plus is his choice of performing the complete text to Sicut cervus a work that is really overdone in spite of its perfection, and is often stopped after the prima pars.

Mr. Byrdís work fares equally well. A most impressive feature of this disc is the consistency with which this choir sings. These recordings span a quarter century, and it appears that this group has maintained its standards throughout its years of existence.

Program notes are informative, if not a bit amusing in their sometimes-unidiomatic English translations and rather frequent misspelled or just plain made-up words. I found this to be a bit surprising given the fluency with which most Swedes speak English. A small quibble though.

This is a very fine release, and all lovers of fine choral singing should enjoy it, although I am guessing it might be a bit hard to come by outside of Sweden. Perhaps our editorial staff will be able to link readers to a purchase source.

Highly recommended.

Kevin Sutton

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