Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA (1525 - 1594)
Missa Papae Marcelli (1555/6) [30:56] (1); Stabat Mater (c.1590) [9:33] (1); Missa l’Homme Armé a 5 vocum [31:01] (2); Alma Redemptoris Mater [2:35] (1); Peccantem Me Quotidie [4:34] (1)
Pro Cantione Antiqua/Bruno Turner (1); Mark Brown (2)
rec. (1) St. Alban’s Church, Brook Street, London, 1980; (2) All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London, 19-22 February 1990
ALTO ALC1061 [78:45] 

Pro Cantione Antiqua has a long pedigree and their recordings, luckily, continue to appear in the catalogues. This CD contains two Palestrina masses, originally recorded in 1980 and 1990, now appearing on the Alto label. With rare exceptions, the group recorded with an all male line-up using counter-tenors on the top line. Though this would have been unremarkable in Palestrina’s lifetime, having an all-male ensemble continues to be relatively rare. There are pluses and minuses to this.

The pieces have to be sung at low-ish pitch as the counter-tenors tend not to go above E, which means that sometimes a passage seems a little low. But this happens so rarely that you start to enjoy the way the pieces fit the tessitura of the voices, as with The Cardinall’s Musick’s performance of Byrd’s four-part mass with similar forces.

More seriously, the counter-tenors are sometimes a little shallow-toned at the top of their register; the sound of a male, falsetto-based, voice lightening the tone and shading off as the top note is reached is vastly different from the way a soprano would attack the line. But Pro Cantione Antiqua prove themselves even here, partly because of their strongly talented line-up of singers. These are not simply archaeological performances, but strongly musical ones.

A hint of this can be gained from looking at some of the names who appear in these recordings, Paul Esswood, Timothy Penrose, Ian Partridge, Stephen Roberts, Michael George, Charles Brett, Ashley Stafford, Wynford Evans and Christopher Keyte. These are finely musical performances, sung by singers who are both intelligent and possessed of characterful voices. Many of them are known for their solo work and their aural effect is notable for the distinctiveness of the individuals. This is no seamlessly blended bland-sounding group, each line lives with vibrancy. They don’t reach the sort of moulded perfection attained by the likes of the Tallis Scholars. Instead you remain aware that the line is made up of individuals - a real ensemble.

On this disc they perform one of Palestrina’s best known masses, Missa Papae Marcelli, the mass with which he is reputed to have saved Church music. Whether he did or no, it is a very fine mass and has the advantage that listening to it can reap great rewards. I rather suspect that many Palestrina masses are rather more interesting to sing than to listen to. But the soaring lines of Missa Papae Marcelli provide great interest and, in this performance, real emotional intensity.

This is followed by Palestrina’s setting of the Stabat Mater. Never printed during Palestrina’s lifetime, the work was written for the Papal Chapels during the last decade of Palestrina’s life. Here it receives a poised, well modulated performance.

The Missa l’Homme Armé follows. It is one of the many masses based on the famous medieval song. Palestrina takes advantage of the strong, symmetrical musical motif to create a brilliantly constructed mass. Finally we get two gems, the motets Alma Redemptoris Mater and Peccantem Me Quotidie
The CD booklet includes an informative article by Bruno Turner and full Latin texts but no translations.

Those who wish for a rather more refulgent tone in the top line should perhaps consider looking at other choirs. Also the earlier of the recordings may be beginning to show their age. But I have no qualms about recommending this disc to everyone. The performers wear their learning lightly and never has musical archaeology been produced with such intelligence.

Robert Hugill