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Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA (1525–1594)
Canticum Canticorum (1584)
Pietro Prosser (lute/archlute); Vittorio Zanon (positive organ); Capella Ducale Venetia/Livio Picotti
rec. Abbey Sant’Antimo, Mantalcino, Sienna, March 2003
cpo 777 142-2 [68.59]

Palestrina’s cycle of motets on texts from The Song of Songs was published in 1584 as his fourth book of motets, but the works are far closer to his madrigal style. On this new recording, Livio Picotti and Capella Ducale perform the pieces very much in the madrigal style, using just one voice to a part and using discreet continuo support from Pietro Prosser on Lute and Archlute.
The motets set 57 verses selected from a total of 116 verses in The Song of Songs. Numerous contemporary printings of the work testify to its popularity during Palestrina’s lifetime. But of course, great works do not necessarily make easy recording projects.
The cycle has not been a frequent visitor to the record catalogue, perhaps because recording a sequence of 29 sacred madrigals is rather a daunting prospect. The various recordings - by the Hilliard Ensemble, Magnificat, Pro Cantione Antique, the Cambridge Singers - have brought out different aspects of the cycle and, so far, no single recording manages to encompass the complete work in all its various aspects.
Capella Ducale are very much a vocal ensemble in the modern style, with distinctive voices and characterful delivery rather than blended perfection. Judging by their names, four of the six singers would seem to be native Italians so I had high hopes for the recording. Two of the singers, soprano Ulrike Wurdak and alto Alessandro Carmignani, have profoundly distinctive voices, perhaps too distinctive for the good of the work. Both have a significant edge to their voice and not everybody will like the resulting, slightly edgy tone.
But the group sing well together, responding to the music and imbuing it with a delightful madrigalian feel. There were occasionally smudges in the fioriture but nothing too disturbing. More worrying is the lack of intensity that the group gives to verbal and dramatic issues. Their performance is not bland, but they seem to respond neither to the words nor to the innate drama in the work. The text is, after all, a dialogue between bride and bridegroom and could be rendered quite dramatically. Even if you choose to emphasise the more sacred aspects of the work, the text could be projected with greater intensity than it is here.
The group use one singer to a part and change the voices allocated to the parts depending on the tessitura of the printed works. This means that in the first half, soprano Ulrike Wurdak is on the top line and in the second half, alto Alessandro Carmignani is on the top line. I found the Carmignani’s voice a little too squeezed and edgy, I was not comfortable with him singing the top line. But there is a musicological objection to this. Though the pieces are printed with the second half of the cycle using different clefs and keys, I had always understood that this was a common convention in the 16th century. All the pieces should be sung in harmonised keys with the same line-up of voice types throughout the work.
The definitive recording of Palestrina’s Song of Songs has yet to be made. Whilst this one has some attractive qualities, it is not really a recording that I would want to live with.
Robert Hugill



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