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
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.
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