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Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c.1525-1594)
Live in Rome - Celebrating Palestrina’s 400th Anniversary
Surge, illuminare [3:16]
Missa Papae Marcelli [33:02]
Stabat Mater [10:01]
Alma Redemptoris Mater [3.33]
Magnificat primi toni (8 voices) [8:40]
Nunc Dimitis (8 voices) [4:06]
Missa Brevis [21:29] – Audio only
Missa Assumpta est Maria [29:51] – Audio only
Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652)
Miserere [13.52]
N.B. Dating of Palestrina’s music is debatable.
The Tallis Scholars, directed by Peter Phillips
Deborah Roberts, soprano (in Allegri’s Miserere)
Filmed in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore on February 2nd & 3rd 1994
Audio tracks:- Missa Brevis in Merton College Oxford (undated) & Missa Assumpta est Maria in Salle Church, Norfolk (undated)
GIMDN 904 NTSC format
GIMELL GIMDP 903 PAL [c.80 mins film; c.60 mins audio]

This DVD would have to be one of my Desert Island Discs – that is assuming I had a DVD player on the island! The reason is not hard to see. Three things come together to make this a dream disc for enthusiasts of 16th century polyphonic music.

Firstly we have a glorious performance of some of most gorgeous music ever composed! Secondly there is the setting – the most beautiful (in my opinion) church in Rome, if not the world. And finally the singers are perhaps the greatest exponents of Renaissance music in the world. If you are in any doubt about this just ask yourself the question – ‘Why did the Vatican ask an English choir to celebrate the 400th Anniversary of that most Roman composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina?’

Let’s consider the singers first. They were founded over thirty years ago by their present director Peter Phillips. Currently they have some 47 CDs available covering the entire range of Renaissance sacred music. What is perhaps most striking is their director’s willingness to explore the byways as well as the highways of the repertoire. Just listen to their releases of music by William Cornysh, Manuel Cardoso and Robert Whyte to see what wonderful music they have added to the canon. This is over and above the better known works by William Byrd, Tomás Luis de Victoria, Thomas Tallis – and of course Palestrina.

The sound of the ‘Scholars’ is unique. The quality of recording by Gimell allows every nuance to be heard. There is definitive clarity of sound on this DVD which gives clear ‘visibility’ of the progression of the musical parts. The underlying scholarship allows the choir to fully understand the music they sing and this comes across in every note.

Palestrina is a big name. He ranks with Byrd, Victoria and Orlando Lassus as being one of the great masters of Renaissance sacred music. This is not really the place to give a detailed history of his life and career. However a few comments are relevant whilst considering this disc.

Appropriately, Palestrina began his education as a scholar at St Maria Maggiore where he was also a choir boy. After finishing his education he returned to the suburban town of Palestrina (hence his name). After marriage and fathering three children he returned to Rome where he took up a number of appointments including singing in the Sistine Chapel. Later he became ‘Maestro di cappella’ of St John’s Lateran (1555-1560) and St Maria Maggiore (1561-1566), his old alma mater.

His reputation as a composer who was approved of by the Vatican hierarchy led to various important ecclesiastical projects. Chief among these was the rewriting of the church’s plainsong books following the deliberations of the Council of Trent. His most famous work is probably the Missa Papae Marcelli which is rumoured to have been written to mollify Pope Marcellus II and his insistence that all music must contribute to the whole ceremony of the mass and must not dominate or overshadow it.

A brief look at a catalogue of Palestrina’s works reveals him to be extremely prolific. He wrote a huge amount of ecclesiastical (and other) music in a basically conservative manner. The key elements of his style are the perfect balance of the voices and the total coherence of the musical structure both ‘vertically and horizontally’. His polyphonic style became the norm that was imitated for many years. Even today there are classes in writing counterpoint in the style of Palestrina.

The music on this DVD includes the great Missa Papae Marcelli mentioned above. This is a long work that lasts for over half an hour. It is often forgotten that the Tridentine Mass was much less audience orientated than modern post Vatican II revisions. There was not the dialogue between priest and people. Most of the words of the liturgy were spoken silently or quietly by the celebrant. So the music of the mass was used to ‘entertain’ the audience. But the presentation on this DVD is divorced from the liturgical setting. This is certainly a concert performance.

Other works included are the Stabat Mater which is perhaps one of Palestrina’s greatest works. It is his last loosely datable composition and is a kind of summing up of his musical achievement. The attractive Magnificat and Nunc Dimitis is a positive and bright example of these setting from Vespers. The Alma Redemptoris has a rare simplicity which belies its subtle beauty. The Surge illuminare is a fine example of an antiphonal setting for two choirs.

One other work, not by the ‘master’ is Allegri’s ubiquitous Miserere. This is the work that Mozart famously copied down from memory after a visit to the Sistine Chapel. It is given a stunning performance here. In spite of its popularity it never ceases to amaze and impress me.

The setting of the concert is the strikingly beautiful and sumptuous St Maria Maggiore. This is one of the Four Great Basilicas in Rome. The story of its foundation is well known but bears repetition. In 352 AD Pope Liberius dreamt of a snowstorm in the month of August. The dream came true and he vowed to build a church at the place he had dreamt of. Originally it was called ‘Santa Maria a Nives’ – St Mary of the Snow. The church was rebuilt in 432 AD by Pope Sixtus III. Of course the church has been restored, added to and rearranged many time since but the important fact is that it is very much as Palestrina would have remembered it – so it is highly appropriate for this recording. The DVD gives us two options for enjoying the concert. The first is to concentrate on the music - this is 100% Tallis Scholars with optional subtitles. The second way of appreciating this recording is to watch the exposition of gorgeous art works, mosaics and carvings illustrate the texts of the sung works. This is a church is full of masterpieces; some of the most gorgeous and moving religious imagery in the world are encompassed in these four walls.

Additional features of this fine DVD include an extra ‘audio only’ selection of two of Palestrina’s greatest works – the glorious Missa Assumpta est Maria and the ‘not so short’ Missa Brevis. These were recorded in the United Kingdom (see above).

There is also a fascinating short film of ‘what the singers see;’ whilst listening to the Nunc Dimitis we can see Peter Phillips direct the action!

This is a big value recording. When the times are all added up we have over eighty minutes of music on film and nearly an extra hour of audio. Add to this the wonderful film of the Basilica’s treasure and the excellent program notes we have a tremendous product.

It is highly appropriate to have such a stunning record of this fine 400th birth (death)day concert. It is a tribute to the competence and the scholarly integrity of the Tallis Scholars that they were asked to do the birthday honours in Palestrina’s own church in front of the Vatican hierarchy.

John France

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