Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA (c.1525-1594)
Missa Papae Marcelli
Arvo PÄRT (b.1935)
Choral Works
Palestrina - Kyrie [4:11]
Pärt - The Woman with the Alabaster Box (1997) [5:48]
Palestrina - Gloria [4:41]
Pärt - Tribute to Caesar (1997) [6:21]
Palestrina - Credo [7:29]
Pärt - I am the True Vine (1996) [5:48]
Palestrina - Sanctus/Benedictus [5:48]
Pärt - Most Holy Mother of God (2003) [5:06]
Palestrina - Agnus Dei I and II [6:05]
Palestrina - Missa Papae Marcelli [Integral]
Kyrie [4:08]
Gloria [4:39]
Credo [7:27]
Sanctus/Benedictus [5:47]
Agnus Dei I and II [6:05]
Nederlands Kamerkoor/Risto Joost
rec. October 2010, Waalse Kerk, Amsterdam
GLOBE RECORDS GLO5240 [79:53] 

I’m not usually one to ascribe character traits to inanimate objects, but if there was ever a CD which lacked self-confidence, then this is the one. What we have is a now quite frequently used and useful idea of placing ancient pieces against contemporary ones for the same ensemble, in this case Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli performed with four of Arvo Pärt’s choral works. In a piece of programming which seems to back-track on the courage of its convictions, we then have the Palestrina mass again, but without the Pärt. Imagine being in a posh restaurant, ordering some kind of cooked cheese dish, and having it served along with a big block of the raw cheese on its own. What does that say? If you don’t like the expert cooking, you can at least have one of the original ingredients - admire the art of the elder craftsman, just in case - you know... This is an apology rather than an inspiration - people, come on! I don’t want to bang on about this too long on what is after all a very nicely recorded and superbly performed programme. There are some subtle differences in timings with the movements of the mass which I’ve listed above, but even of these are alternative takes the performances are in essence the same. In these days of rippable tracks and programmable CD players this just seems to be the kind of weak and misguided concept which will prevent people from shelling out on this disc in the shops.
The Nederlands Kamerkoor is one of, if not, the top vocal ensemble in The Netherlands, and as one would expect, their performances here are pretty superlative. The Arvo Pärt works have been recorded before, and those of us who know and love the rich performances by the Theatre of Voices/Pro Arte Singers with Paul Hillier on Harmonia Mundi will probably not be on the prowl for alternatives, though in this case they will be missing the beautiful Most Holy Mother of God. Stephen Layton’s marvellous ‘Triodion’ choral disc on Hyperion also has I am the True Vine, but would otherwise compliment this Globe selection nicely. There is also a very nicely performed Naxos disc with Elora Festival Singers conducted by Noel Edison, which is impressive, but with a slightly fluffy sameness throughout the repertoire. The Nederlands Kamerkoor is generally crisper in sound and more intimate by comparison with these examples, but with 20 singers they still have a convincingly homogenous choral sound, and their enunciation of text is very good indeed. Estonian conductor Risto Joost has Pärt’s music as part of his performing DNA, and the performances of his countryman’s music on this disc are superbly proficient. He doesn’t pack them with much extra spiritual aura: “The Word is more important than the music” is the quote from the composer which is chosen to sum up the pieces in the booklet - which by the way does include all of the sung texts in print. His directness of expression in each of these pieces has them come across as objects of timeless and personal devotion rather than for the elevation of some abstract divinity. Tribute to Caesar is given a very special atmosphere in this recording, and is the one to sample should you have the chance.
This way of writing for religious texts is well paired with Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, which the composer is famously reputed to have created to prove to his papal patrons that polyphonic composing and the comprehension of the texts of the mass could go hand in hand. Once again, Joost’s directorship generates this feeling of direct communication without artificial sentiment, phrasing with utmost clarity and allowing the lines of counterpoint and confluences of harmony to form very naturally, and with the utmost sensitivity. One has the feeling that he trusts his singers implicitly, providing the very minimum of shaping and guidance, creating the ideal balance from the central conductors position but placing very little extra emphasis, allowing the music and the musicians to speak for themselves. This might be a hard-won illusion but I doubt it, and either way the work has paid off very nicely indeed. There are of course many marvellous recordings of this piece around, and I’m still very attached to the Tallis Scholars on Gimell GDGIM339 though the timings are consistently a good few minutes longer in what by comparison sounds overly expansive and perhaps even a little old-fashioned by comparison with the Nederlands Kamerkoor. There are plenty of versions which fall somewhere in between, but few if any which beat this recording for clarity.
Having completed the cycle of Palestrina/Pärt, we start all over again with the Kyrie of the mass. Why? I’m sure someone else in the entire history of music wrote some other choral pieces, somewhere, surely....?
Dominy Clements
Beautiful record, daft programme.