Whether or not Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli
saved polyphonic music from the scalpel of the Council
of Trent is up for debate, but it certainly makes a great
story; great enough that the late-romantic composer Hans Pfitzner
fleshed out the legend for his masterpiece of an opera, Palestrina.
Fancy tale or none, the music of the Papal choirmaster
has come to be the gold standard of sixteenth century compositional
style, much in the way that the music of Sebastian Bach is
regarded for the Baroque period.
Clarity is the key word here, and even in the
eight-part double-choir motets represented here, texts are
clearly understandable, and the music, serenely beautiful
as it is, first and foremost serves the words as a vehicle
for religious enlightenment and inspiration.
Palestrina published more than 150 mass settings,
hundreds of motets and more than thirty settings of the Magnificat
during his long and productive career. The mass at hand is
based on the motet of the same name, which is in turn based
on plainchant. The program is rounded out with four sumptuous
double-choir motets and a Magnificat setting, all of
which are heavily indebted to chant.
Timothy Brown leads beautifully balanced performances
with a great deal of attention to detail. Inner voices are
often to the fore and the clear delivery of ornamental figures
from the individual sections is quite remarkable. The Lady
Chapel at Ely Cathedral is extremely reverberant and there
are times when the sound, particularly in the lower registers
borders on tubby, but this happens seldom and on the whole
does not detract from the overall sound quality.
Given Palestrina’s necessary conservatism,
it is often difficult to overcome the rather innate sameness
in the music that can at times lead to listener boredom. Mr.
Brown and his choir subvert this risk with careful attention
to the rise and fall of lines and meticulous attention to
enunciation. Add flawless intonation and an easy, unforced
and natural beauty of tone to the mix and you get more than
an hour of sublime music-making.
At budget price, this is a steal, although
one could wish for a bit more documentation. Essays are informative
but all too brief.