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Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA (1525-1594)
Missa O Sacrum Convivium
Missa, 'O Sacrum Convivium' [30:50]
O Sacrum Convivium [5.00]
Coenantibus illis [5.41]
Magnificat (Sexti Toni a 6) [11.48]
Cristóbal de MORALES (c.1500 – 1553)
Motet, 'O Sacrum Convivium' [4.40]
Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford/Stephen Darlington
rec. 10-11 May 1993, Dorchester Abbey, Oxford, England. DDD
NIMBUS NI5394 [57:58]

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The choir of Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford, under its director Stephen Darlington is justly famous for its trenchant yet sensitive singing of music from almost all eras. Although they have recorded as much nineteenth and twentieth century music as they have Renaissance polyphony, there seems to be a special affinity between this all-male choir and the music of the period of Palestrina.
The composer's life was lived mostly in Counter-Reformation Rome; he worked for a large variety of religious foundations and lay patrons and was obviously a force to be reckoned with in his dealings on fees, conditions and which 'commissions' he accepted. His output is large, including over one hundred attributable masses, of which O Sacrum Convivium is only otherwise available in an alternative grouping by this same choir and conductor (on a five disc survey, 'European Choral Music 1525-1751' - Nimbus 1758).
It's a beautiful parody mass using the motet, O Sacrum Convivium, by Cristóbal de Morales (c.1500 – 1553) as its 'source'. From the opening of the Kyrie it's evident that the singers are pledged fully to convey the gentle and somewhat understated nature of the motet. Perhaps it's to make that impact all the greater that the usual practice of placing the motet first in the track order has not been followed … it's to be heard at the very end [tr.10]. Even after the delightful and exhilarating Coenantibus illis [tr. 8] (another Corpus Christi motet) and after the splendid Magnificat (Sexti Toni a 6) [tr.9], which is a heady alternation of chant and polyphony.
These themselves follow Palestrina's own setting [tr.7] of the motet O Sacrum Convivium itself; this builds on the plainsong antiphon, not on Morales' work. Tracks can usually be set to play in any order. But with music as ethereal and sublime as this, one scarcely wants to be fiddling with buttons. The producers of the CD may have had a reason for the order they chose. Here let's assume it was aesthetic contrast, and not reference.
The Mass is a reflective work, as befits the occasion which it celebrates - the feast day of Corpus Christi in early summer. Palestrina adheres closely to Morales' work, opening all of the movements except the Et incarnatus and Crucifixus with the earlier composer's motifs. There is - of course - a close match between Palestrina's musical ideas, especially counterpoint, and the text. The articulation and phrasing of the choir respects this well … listen to the changed tempo two or three minutes into the longest movement, the Credo [tr.3], for example. It almost comes to a complete stop as if to invite, not pressure, us into examining the import of the text.
Not that the Choir's style lacks life or forward movement. Later in the movement their pace is full of the joy surrounding faith. But it's a graceful and considered joy, rather than an unbounded one. Their singing is lucid, clean and forward. In the sympathetic acoustic of Dorchester Abbey, Oxford, this is a CD which meets all its expectations. There is a useful introductory essay and full texts in the accompanying booklet. Even were there another recording for comparison, the style and sense of immediacy tempered with elegance in what is an almost relaxed Mass of these performers make the release one to treasure.
Mark Sealey

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