Aureole etc.

Golden Age singers

Nimbus on-line

Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Allegri’s Miserere: Sacred Music of the Renaissance
Gregorio ALLEGRI (1582-1652)

Miserere a 5, 4 [12.22]
Josquin DES PREZ (c.1440-1521)

Ave Maria…virgo serena a 4 [5.25]
William BYRD (1543-1623)

Ave verum corpus a 4 [4.34]
Robert PARSONS (c,1530-1570)

Ave Maria a 4 [4.39]
Guillaume DUFAY (c.1397-1474)

Nuper rosarum flores a 6 [5.53]
Tomás Luis de VICTORIA (1548-1611)

O magnum mysterium a 4 [3.54]
Jean de OCKEGHEM (C.1410-1497)

Deo gratias a 36 [4.29]
Giovanni Perluigi da PALESTRINA (c.1525-1594)

Stabat Mater a 8 [11.20]
Antonio LOTTI (c.1667-1740)

Crucifixus a 8 [3.32]
Michael PRAETORIUS (1571-1621)

In dulci jubilo a 4 [2.22]
Pierre DE LA RUE (1543-1623)

O salutaris hostia a 4 [2.32]
Thomas TALLIS (c.1505-1585)

Spem in alium a 40 [9.35]
Cantillation dir. Antony Walker
(dir. Brett Weymark in tracks 2,3 &5)
rec 15-17 March 2002 and 21 Nov. 2001 (Allegri, Miserere), Eugene Goossens Hall of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Ultimo Centre, Sydney, Australia
ABC CLASSICS 472 881-2 [72.09]


With this recording of Sacred Music of the Renaissance the Australian vocal ensemble Cantillation, formed in 2001, has thrown itself whole-heartedly into the area of thickest competition for vocal groups singing renaissance repertoire. With the exception of the 36 part Deo gratias of Ockeghem, all the repertoire on this disc is well known and frequently recorded. Recording this repertoire has positive and negative aspects. On the plus side, it shows very quickly what the group is capable of achieving in a way that makes comparison with other groups (and invariably there will be comparison with the likes of The Tallis Scholars or The Sixteen) straightforward. On the down side, one must ask the obvious question "is yet another recording of this music needed?"

The programme is well structured, but the choice of repertoire is not imaginative. Allegri Miserere at the beginning, Palestrina Stabat Mater in the middle and Tallis Spem in alium at the end, relieved by the shorter but no less ubiquitous Byrd Ave verum corpus, Victoria O magnum mysterium and Lotti Crucifixus in between. Architecturally this works well, but there are simply so many discs that distribute this same programme in similar or slightly varied ways that the purchaser is presented with a problem. They will either need to have some connection with Australia to be interested in this particular group of singers, or they are more likely to head for this programme sung by groups with famous names.

Although Cantillation are a very good group and the recording (of which more later) is generally excellent, they have missed an opportunity to do something to make their performance stand out from the crowd. The title work, Allegri’s famous Miserere serves as a good example of this missed opportunity. To quote from the extensive booklet notes "the two solo choirs were…famous for their ability to embellish the melodic lines with elaborate ornamentations. To have sung just the notes on the page would have been unthinkable". The writer goes on: "in the 18th century the ability of …choristers to improvise such decorations gradually diminished until it was lost entirely…" but this is a misleading statement. The embellishments were never improvised, they were taken from well-known figures that were learnt as part of the art of singing. Books teaching this art survive and are available again to modern researchers so the art is not in fact "lost entirely". As the writer says, to sing the mere notes on the page is unthinkable, and yet it this is just what Cantillation does. Leaving aside the whole issue of the fact that the notes on the page are not what Allegri wrote (even the famous top C is a mistake caused by a 19th century editor inadvertently transposing part of the music in choir 1 up a forth) it is a shame to be still recording, without recourse to modern scholarship, an incorrectly transcribed work based on Charles Burney and Felix Mendelssohn’s recollections, in an edition by Ivor Atkins dating from 1951. Nowadays we do know how this music was sung. What a pity, given the frequency with which it is recorded, that Cantillation could not have made their version stand out by re-creating the embellishments as they might have been applied by singers of Allegri’s own time.

There are other aspects of this disc that are much more satisfying. Dufay’s famous motet Nuper rosarum flores (written for the consecration of the dome of Florence Cathedral) receives a very musical performance with a particularly good (although uncredited) soprano who avoids going all "early music" and boyish. Of course this would not have been sung by a woman (nor by a boy) in Dufay’s time, but if the recording has a woman singing it, she should at least be true to her own vocal sound and exploit it to the service of the music. This she does and the result is fine.

The same cannot be said for other tracks. Josquin’s Ave Maria, the Stabat Mater of Palestrina and the famous 8 part Crucifixus of Lotti all suffer from timidity in the interpretation and a vocal sound that relies heavily on received traditions descending from King’s College Cambridge and The Tallis Scholars; both fine groups, but their sound is their own. Cantillation need to find their own sound rather than relying on these received traditions. These works need more colour, more variety of balance and an altogether less refined sound. In the Lotti, which is full of the most pungent dissonances, it must be remembered that, although he was writing in a deliberately archaic a cappella style, he was doing so at the same time as Vivaldi was performing his La Stravaganza violin concertos. The Venetian audience was used to the operatic and the dramatic aspects of music being always at the forefront. Lotti was not trying to be Byrd, but this aspect of the almost physically emotive use of the dissonances seems to have passed Walker and his singers by.

The disc is more impressive in the recording of the works for massive forces. Unfortunately the booklet is rather sniffy about the 40-voice motet Ecce beatam lucem by Alessandro Striggio, which was probably the inspiration for Tallis’s famous Spem in alium (and which is in fact a fine work). This expression of subjective opinion about a work that does not feature on the disc is a slip in the standard of the booklet writing and should not have made it through the editing process. The recording of 40 solo singers in one giant ensemble is one of the great challenges for any engineer. The ABC team have achieved excellent results here. It is too easy for such a work to become a great wash of muddy sound, or to be handled so dryly that ensemble and space are lost. The capture of this performance steps neatly between these extremes and the clarity is retained without sacrificing the grandeur of the big moments. The same is almost achieved in the very interesting Deo gratias of Ockeghem. This 36-part work (really the only ‘find’ in this programme) is made up of four choirs of nine parts, each of which is singing a (different) nine-fold canon. As a display of compositional fireworks it is almost unrivalled and the listening experience is certainly awe-inspiring. The difficulty lies in each choir being of nine of the same voice type. A canon of nine basses is always going to suffer from a certain cloudiness, but it is here that the presence of added reverb really becomes noticeable and is not necessarily a help.

Cantillation is clearly a group of very fine singers, and one is possibly being somewhat hard on them. However, when a group chooses to record repertoire available in many other versions there has to be something extra to make them stand out to the potential buyer. Apart from a very well captured Spem in alium and an interesting piece of programming in the Deo gratias there is not enough of stellar quality or noticeably different approach to distinguish this (otherwise very capable) performance from the crowd. It is a shame that a more imaginative approach was not taken to the programming. Too much is aiming only for beauty, and, while admirable, in this repertoire that’s not enough.

Peter Wells



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