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Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA (c.1525-1594)
Third Book of Lamentations: In Coena Domini (Maundy Thursday) [26:49]; In Parasceve (Good Friday) [24:41]; Sabbato Sancto (Holy Saturday) [27:17]
Choir of Westminster Cathedral/ Martin Baker rec. 10-12, 14 July 2006, Westminster Cathedral, London. DDD
HYPERION CDA 67610 [79:16]


This excellent CD contains three groups of settings from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, which are part of the Roman liturgy for Holy Week, at the end of which comes the Triduum: Maundy Thursday (Coena Domini), Good Friday (Parasceve) and Holy Saturday (Sabbatum Sanctum). Typically this liturgy is varied, complex  and unusually rich, with material drawn from the Old and New Testaments, various responsories, antiphons and special prayers and ceremonies. These include the Tenebrae, which reach a climax during the ‘Benedictus’ at Lauds, when (church) candles are progressively extinguished. Lessons, lectiones, are usually based on biblical passages, reflections on such texts and/or extensive quotations from the Lamentations. Other ceremonies commenting on the events of Easter take place throughout this period with a huge store of texts from which composers were also able to choose in marking this holiest time of the year.

Palestrina made four complete Lamentations settings in all, of which this disc contains the third. In common with the others, the composer selected only a small portion of the Gospel narratives of the Passion. These are not only similar to the other three settings, but are also lectiones with reflective, sometimes melismatic interludes on the corresponding letters in Hebrew - aleph, beth, vau etc: they have symbolic meaning - that preface them. Polyphonic settings of unvarying texts coming before the lectiones themselves were also the norm; as were conventions for the closing exhortation of each lectio: ‘Ierusalem, Ierusalem convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum’.

An almost greater the challenge for composers than these rigorous conventions was to write music of such sombreness and unrelenting intensity that was nevertheless usable, accessible. The settings on this CD are, make no mistake, grave, slow and reflective. But Palestrina’s genius extends far beyond mere figurative melancholy. Yes, he uses some word painting; he underlines the pith and anger of the text. But it’s from the overall effect of grief in the music that its impact comes. To communicate this detachment, which must never hint at the maudlin or self-pitying, is the challenge of the performers. The Choir of Westminster Cathedral under Martin Baker are well up to the challenge; their approach is forceful and appropriately dignified and the CD can be recommended as a result.

A composer as familiar as Palestrina with the musical pitfalls of a somewhat restrictive text, who yet possessed the great imagination that he did was able to produce music of power and resonance in his Lamentations. He achieved this by using a rich harmonic palette, original melodic developments and by making full use of those elements (referred to above) external to the essence of the liturgy: there is a noticeable contrast between the story of the text on the one hand, and its atmosphere as conveyed by the sentences surrounding the lectiones and acting as commentary on the other. It’s a relief pointed up by the difference between homophony and polyphony. The articulation of ‘Vau’ (Hebrew ‘W’) for example is plain and makes an interesting contrast with the rest of Lectio II.

The approach of the forty-some strong Westminster Cathedral Choir is as though they entered their sessions with the weight of the world on their shoulders, then let the music do what it must. Nothing unduly melancholy; certainly nothing depressed. Just sincere, evenly paced; never understated nor yet lacking in spirit. It’s singing of power, restraint - yet singing that bears lucid witness to the seriousness of this period of the church year. Organic, united without being uniform, the wholeness is persuasive, though never so crystalline and transparent as would be an equivalent performance by the Tallis Scholars, for example. 

Each of the three Lamentations on this disc has three lectiones; each lasts between seven and ten minutes; but they are no miniatures. Nor does the Westminster Choir’s approach give the feeling of having either condensed their range or stretched them unduly for easier impact. They are sung with plainness, clarity, conviction and trenchancy. It’s music with a searing purpose and tone benefiting from a performance assembled carefully and intelligently. 

Mark Sealey




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