The Westminster Cathedral Choir take a wall-of-sound approach
to Palestrina. They field around 40 singers and the microphones
are set well back in order to homogenise the image and take
advantage of the Cathedral’s long yet magnificently even reverberation.
Unfortunately, this recording fails to be more than the sum
of these impressive parts. Listening to the two Palestrina masses,
you really get the feeling that this music is bread and butter
to the singers, core repertoire that they perform on a very
regular basis. But has complacency crept in? The intonation
and passage-work are often approximate at best. The boys are
more to blame than the men, I think, although every voice group
has their moments.
Or perhaps I just don’t share the choir’s artistic values. The
recording conforms to a solid tradition of liturgical singing,
where bigger is better and the superiority of boy’s voices in
the upper parts is unquestioned. These days CD buyers have a
wide choice, although plenty remain loyal to Martin Baker and
his cathedral forces. Precision is always going to be at a premium
with a choir of this size, just as clarity is going to diminish
with the homogenisation of the recorded sound. Even so, this
is music that relies on the contrapuntal interplay of voices
for its structure and progression.
One advantage of the choir’s liturgical context is the emphasis
that they place on the articulation of the words. This is a
value they share with Palestrina himself, and in the quieter
openings in particular, the music is carried through the sheer
power of diction. Credit too for the choir’s stamina, the musical
problems I mentioned do not increase as movements progress.
And what fascinating repertoire. The two masses, Missa Te
Deum laudamus and Missa Tu es Petrus - the latter
the justification for the Rubens on the cover - are Palestrina
at his level best. The former is set in the Phrygian mode, giving
a plaintive shading even to the most opulent passages. Missa
Tue es Petrus was only published in 1887, a victim, perhaps
of the quantity of Palestrina’s output. It is a parody mass
based on the composer’s motet of the same name, which is also
A four voice Te Deum by Victoria opens the programme. It is
rhythmically more interesting than the Palestrina that follows,
more structurally varied too, alternating plainchant with homophonic
choral writing. By avoiding Victoria’s polyphonic works - many
of which are magnificent - the disc does him the favour of not
setting him in direct comparison with Palestrina. He would struggle
to win that one.
All in all, though, this disc is a disappointment. It is strictly
for those who have a preference for large choirs, boys’ voices,
opulent acoustics, slow tempi ... dare I say it, old-fashioned
Palestrina. But even they are likely to be disappointed by the
intonation and many moments of weakness in the upper lines.
The Westminster Cathedral Choir is one of this country’s great
musical institutions, and their recording catalogue includes
many, many recordings that are better than this.
Brian Wilson was more encouraging in his April Dowload