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Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA (1525/26-1594)
Offertoria, from Offertoria totius anni secundum Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae consuetudinem (Rome 1593)
Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge/Richard Marlow
rec. Chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge, 6-8 July 1999


Palestrina’s Offertoria was published in 1593, containing 68 pieces which cover every Sunday and festival of the church year. The present recording covers most of the offertories from Advent Sunday to Trinity Sunday. The tradition in Rome at the time was to have motets performed at the point in the service where bread and wine were placed upon the altar, along with other rituals such as incensing and washing of hands. This context in terms of compositional style means that Palestrina was at his most conservative, avoiding extended word-painting, dance-like rhythms and unprepared dissonances. Melodies are balanced, and all is graceful lines and elegant proportions. The pieces move through a variety of modes, and the order of the programme has been selected so that the voices move from Dorian through to Hypomixolydian. The alterations in vocal texture between these modes or ‘keys’ is subtle, and easily missed in casual listening, but the overall effect is like moving through the different regions of a vast cathedral – unified by a single architect, but given differences of light and shade though a variety of stained-glass windows.

One slight mystery is that this appears to be a reissue of a CD on the GMN label, with identical track listings, personnel and music; judging by the sound samples on one website. There is no acknowledgement of this in the Chandos booklet. As you might expect, the music is exquisitely sung and beautifully recorded. The Chapel of Trinity College has a pleasantly roomy acoustic, blending the voices without becoming swimmy. If there is any criticism on my part, then it might be the neutral, middle-distance placing of the choir, which results in a more or less mf dynamic for a great deal of the time, although this is of course more or less how the music might be experienced in a service setting. The choral sound has a very pleasant homogeneity to it, with no voices leaping out at you, even at the most expressive moments. Such a procession of ‘safe’ choral repertoire might come across as monotonous, but in fact there is a great deal of subtle variety, with numbers like the Jubilate Deo universa terra providing some more lively contrast. Compared with the more famous masses, it is fascinating hear how Palestrina works with the more compact canvas of these shorter pieces.

One can have such a CD on as an ambient aural tapestry, but listening with closer attentiveness to the polyphonic lines rewards the mind and touches feelings both remote and familiar. It makes a nice change to hear these works in this collected context, and this disc is a welcome member of the Renaissance catalogue.

Dominy Clements 




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