By and large, there seems to be a general consensus
about the ideals to which modern performances of Palestrina should
aspire. Most seem intent on balancing
the clarity afforded by clear articulation and even balance between the voices
with a warm, all-embracing aura, either from a generous acoustic or from homogeneity
of choral tone.
By those standards, this is a remarkably successful recording. Ensemble Officium
is a relatively small choir, seventeen singers are credited, but has plenty of
power in reserve for Palestrina’s more opulent textures. Some may find
the readings a little on the dry side, dry for Palestrina that is, and certainly
clarity is the overriding concern here. The balance between the voices is impeccable,
as is the articulation of the texts. Pope Marcellus would surely have approved,
as he would that the texts are also provided.
The liner-notes go into some detail about why these works are performed a fourth
lower than notated. Whatever the historical justification, the musical benefits
are clear. The sopranos are never strained, the alto lines are taken by tenors,
adding to the evenness of the tone, and none of the lower voices is ever compromised
by the tessitura. The recorded sound is exquisite: clear, warm and above all
involving. There is no surround mix, but the stereo SACD layer demonstrates all
the other virtues that this technology can field. In fact, those Trentine ideals
of clarity and engagement are ideally met through the combination of a smallish
choir and high-specification recorded sound.
The programme breaks up the Missa Papae Marcelli with interpolated plainchant
and motets by Palestrina. The idea is to recreate the music of an Ascension Day
service from Palestrina’s time. From a purely musical point of view, this
has the effect of introducing a range of Palestrina’s lesser-known but
equally fine works into the flow of his famous Mass. The ordering is probably
not to everybody’s taste, but I surprised myself in not skipping the Gregorian
chant, which is sung here - often in small unison ensembles - with an unadorned
and unornamented simplicity. Stylistically, it is the ideal complement to Palestrina’s
strivings for polyphonic clarity.
When it comes to Papae Marcelli recordings, the field is already crowded,
but even so this disc deserves recommendation. If you like boy’s voices
on the top lines, driving tempi or halo-like cathedral acoustics, give this one
a miss. On the other hand, if you like clarity, engagement, precision and top-notch
audio, this could be the Papae Marcelli for you.