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Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA (c.1525-1594)
Masses and Motets
CD1
1. Missa Ave Maria [38:45]
2. Missa Hodie Christus natus est (pub. 1599-1601) [27:31]
3. Hodie Christus natus est (1575) [2:46]
4. Canite tuba [6:22]
CD2
5. Ave Maria (1593) [4:22]
6. Tui sunt cæli (1593) [2:38]
7. Jubilate Deo [3:38]
8. O magnum mysterium [6:26]
9. Missa Papæ Marcelli (1555/6) [32:56]
10. Missa brevis (1570) [25:09]
Choir of King’s College Cambridge/Sir Philip Ledger (1-8) Sir David Willcocks (9,10)
rec. King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, 14-15 November 1979 (1); 25-26 July 1977 (2-8); 27-29 July 1970 (9-10). DDD (1)/ADD (2-10).
Booklet with notes but texts not included.
EMI CLASSICS GEMINI 2176552 [75:25 + 75:11]
Experience Classicsonline

This Gemini reissue offers wonderful value in presenting the contents of three separate LPs.  It would probably sweep the board in this price-bracket were it not for the fact that it comes into very strong competition from a 2-for-1 Gimell reissue of the Tallis Scholars in the Missa Papæ Marcelli and Missa brevis and from the Oxford Camerata on Naxos in the Missa Puer natus est.
 
The 6-part Missa Ave Maria first appeared in 1982 complete with plainsong propers (ASD3955), an unusual procedure then and one which earned the recording a good deal of praise, especially as its chant followed 16th-century practice.  Paradoxically, though this is now more normal practice, considerations of space mean that it now reappears shorn of those plainsong interpolations.  Now, as then, it is a comparatively neglected work – only one current rival, I believe, on Hyperion, of which more below.
 
The Missa Hodie Christus natus est, the two motets which conclude CD1 and the four which open CD2 are taken from an LP which appeared four years earlier, in 1978 (ASD3559).  Re-mastered in 1991, it subsequently appeared on LP, cassette and CD on the EMI Eminence label, the latter in ADD form, CD-EMX2098 (CDM7 64045 2).  I bought that Eminence CD long ago on impulse and never seriously regretted the purchase.
 
The Willcocks performance of Missa Papæ Marcelli was (is?) coupled with The Fauré Requiem and Pavane on an Italian EMI Red Line recording, which my colleague Christopher Howell mentions in his review of another King’s recording of the Fauré, under Philip Ledger, on Classics for Pleasure (CFP 3 75906 2 – see review).  CH hoped that EMI would issue the contents of that Red Line CD as a GROC; in a sense, they have gone one better in reissuing the Marcellus Mass as part of this budget-price 2-CD compilation.
 
These recordings of Missa Papæ Marcelli and the Missa brevis appeared on EMI’s mid-price label in 1971 (HQS1237) – perhaps EMI thought the music too esoteric to appeal at full price, though Willcocks himself had contributed to making Palestrina’s music better known and better performed with his Argo recording of 1964, containing the Stabat mater, Hodie beata virgo, Senex puerum portabat, Magnificat a 8 and Litaniæ de beata Maria (ZRG5398).  Surprisingly, that now-classic performance currently available with the Allegri Miserere on Decca Originals 466 373 2, didn’t receive too warm a welcome from the reviewers when it first appeared or when it was reissued in the 1970s.
 
To remind ourselves of the first appearances of these recordings on LP, with ASDs costing £3.99 in 1978, is salutary.  Despite the rampant inflation of the intervening years, which would probably convert that £3.99 to over £30 at least, the recording now reappears on a 2-CD set almost three times the length of an LP, at little more than twice the original price.
 
The only recording of the Missa Hodie Christus natus est for comparison in 1978 was on a Supraphon LP with the Czech Philharmonic Chorus under Veselka.  I don’t remember ever hearing that particular Veselka recording, but I do remember – even owned briefly on CD – some of his other recordings of late medieval and renaissance music; I remember them well enough to know that the Ledger was a vast improvement.
 
More recently we have had recordings from the Gabrieli Consort/Paul McCreesh (1994, currently available only on DVD 0734361), The Oxford Camerata/Jeremy Summerly (Naxos 8.550836) and Westminster Cathedral Choir/Martin Baker (CDA67396), the last of these also containing the related motet and three of the other motets on the Ledger recording.  Unfortunately, I cannot track MusicWeb reviews of any of these other recordings, but they have all been generally well received in other quarters. 
 
How do these Willcocks and Ledger recordings stand up after thirty years?  Surprisingly well, in fact.  Despite considerable advances in scholarship and performance, my only reservations remain those which were expressed by reviewers on their original appearances, namely that King’s sound a little too placid, a little too concerned with beauty of diction and tone, perhaps even a little tame by comparison with some of the more full-blooded interpretations which have appeared since.
 
I’ve already indicated the strong competition from the Tallis Scholars in the Marcellus Mass and the Missa brevis.  Good as the Willcocks performances are, the Tallis Scholars are even better.  This is their first, analogue recording of the more famous work; some may prefer the later version on Live in Rome, where it’s coupled with the Stabat mater, Magnificat primi toni, etc., and the Allegri Miserere (CDGIM994 – see review in my December 2008 Download Roundup).  That 1994 recording is also available on DVD: GIMDP903 – see my review and that of John France
 
Both JF and I made Live in Rome Recording of the Month, but I’m not going to get into arguments now about whether the analogue or the digital version is the better – I’ll leave price and coupling to decide, apart from saying that I certainly wasn’t put off by the applause on the live version, as some reviewers have been.  It’s the analogue version on CDGIM204 that is directly competitive with the Gemini reissue and I have to say that, were I trying to decide which one to plump for, it would be the Gimell.
 
In the Missa brevis, the Tallis Scholars’ slightly faster tempi work well.  I could live happily with either but my marginal preference is for the more incisive Gimell version.
 
Competition is particularly fierce in the Missa Papæ Marcelli.  This time the boot is on the other foot: Willcocks’ tempi are faster in every section – surprisingly so when one considers that the King’s acoustic usually lends itself to slower tempi.  Normally I prefer to have Palestrina taken at a fairly brisk pace, without too much lingering along the way, and one of my favourite recordings of the Marcellus Mass is slightly brisker even than the Willcocks.  Pro Cantione Antiqua under Bruno Turner, on a 1978 ASV recording, now available at super-budget price on Regis RRC1025, takes just 30:53 against Willcocks’ 32:56 and the Tallis Scholars’ 36:49.   Nevertheless, I never once felt that Peter Phillips was dragging the tempo on the Gimell version, though he is somewhat faster even than Willcocks on Live in Rome (32:22). 
 
Now that the wonderful story of Palestrina’s writing the Missa Papæ Marcelli to ‘save’ polyphony in the teeth of opposition at the Council of Trent is no longer valid, it’s no longer necessary to play down the more elaborate aspects of its polyphony by taking it fast.  (Not that I wish to suggest that either Willcocks or Turner is perfunctory, except, perhaps occasionally, in the King’s Kyrie.)  I sometimes append tables of comparative tempi and was planning to do so here, but this is a case of taking each interpretation on its own considerable merits.
 
Both Gemini and Gimell sets combine analogue and digital tracks but both recordings still sound very well.  The dreaded King’s acoustic, which has led to many of their recordings being made elsewhere, is hardly in evidence on Gemini.  The Gimell recordings were made in two of their favourite locations, Merton College, Oxford, and Salle Church, Norfolk.
 
The notes which accompany the Gemini set are minimal, the Gimell rather more fulsome.  Gimell offer the texts, EMI don’t – an important consideration, though, of course, texts and translations of the ordinary of the Mass are easily come by.  The presentation of the Gemini set is attractive, apart from the fact that one CD is in a lurid orange colour and the other in muddy brown; that of the Gimell, with reproductions of Michelangelo’s sibyls from the Sistine Chapel, is excellent.
 
The Regis/Turner CD is stupendous value (around £4.50 in the UK) and it offers very competitive performances of Missa Papæ Marcelli and Missa Assumpta est Maria, both included on the Gimell set.  At slightly less than twice that price for two CDs, the Gemini is even better value and you could hardly go wrong in buying it.  The Gimell set comes at a slightly higher price but is still a notable bargain; it can also be downloaded from Gimell’s website in decent 320k mp3 sound for £7.99 or in excellent CD-quality sound for £9.99, complete with all the notes and liners.  You’ll be hard pressed to find a download of the Gemini on offer that isn’t more expensive than buying the CDs.
 
If you prefer boys’ voices on the top line, or if you must have the Missa Hodie Christus natus est and Missa Ave Maria as part of the deal, you have no choice but to buy the two well-filled Gemini CDs, with very little cause for regret.  I’d have given this set the thumbs-up accolade if it hadn’t been for the keen competition.  I’ve listened to these King’s performances with pleasure, but I’ve listened to the Tallis Scholars’ versions with something closely akin to rapture.
 
If you opt for the Gimell CDs, you’ll also have excellent performances of Missa Assumpta est Maria and Missa sicut lilium inter spinea and you can add Missa Hodie Christus natus est and Lassus’s Missa Bell’ Amfitrit’ alterna inexpensively from the recommendable Oxford Camerata recording on Naxos 8.550836.  Then, or later, you could add the Westminster Cathedral version of Missa Ave Maria, coupled with Missa de beata Virgine on Hyperion CDA66364 – and still have change from the £30 which was my conservative estimate of the present-day value of the £3.99 which a single LP would have cost in 1978.
 
Brian Wilson
 


 


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