This welcome reissue from the Westminster Cathedral Choir on
Hyperion is classic Palestrina. It is as near as you'll get
to that 'Catholic' ideal of Palestrina's music as serene and
even, with slowly evolving textures and dynamics that articulate
the various movement's liturgical functions.
The choir has a reputation for doing this sort of thing and
doing it well. This disc is an example of it all adding up.
You've got note-perfect singing from everybody, even balance
- although it is perhaps a little top-heavy at times - and a
relationship with the warm acoustic that only comes from years
and years of performance at the venue.
The 'Missa Aeterna Christi munera' well deserves its fame as
one of Palestrina's most famous masses. Texturally, it is not
his most complex work; it is in four parts throughout apart
from the second Agnus Dei where the tenors are divided. It therefore
suits this big choir approach well, and neither the number of
singers nor the acoustic ever threaten the clarity of the counterpoint.
Among recent versions, the Naxos recording with Jeremy Summerly
and the Oxford Camerata (8.550573) serves as an interesting
comparison. Summerly's musical aims are very similar, and despite
his use of a smaller choir of adult singers, the pitch is the
same and the tempos correspond closely. His smaller forces mean
that he has the edge when it comes to detail, and he insists
on harder consonants. He also puts in more localised dynamics.
Summerly's mass strikes a different balance between the liturgical
and the aesthetic, but demonstrates that you don't necessarily
have to iron out the phonetics of the text to achieve transcendence.
That's not to say that the Westminster forces present the mass
as an unchanging monolithic unit. There is a surprising amount
of intimacy here too. In the Benedictus, for example, the choir
is reduced to chamber proportions. The accuracy of the singing
is such that even here the voices blend, and enough of the monumentality
is maintained to allow the section to cohere with the mass as
Three motets follow, Sicut cervus desiderat, Super flumina Babylonis
and Vidi turbam magnam. These make for ideal programming for
the Westminster Choir, as each is an almost perfect example
of Palestrina's art. The arc-form of each work gradually evolves,
with the counterpoint becoming more and more involved. They
provide a great opportunity for the choir to demonstrate the
discipline and vocal control that make their Palestrina special.
I wonder if there are any more motets like this in Palestrina's
output, because if the choir could fill a disc with them they
would be onto a winner.
The last time I heard Canticum Canticorum Salomonis was on another
Hyperion reissue, by Pro Cantione Antiqua under Bruno Turner
but the results could not be more different. The ten singers
of Pro Cantione Antiqua transpose the music down a third and
sing at least 30% faster than here. Unsurprisingly, the results
are difficult to even identify as the same music. The Westminster
Choir sing beautifully here, but I miss the variety and nimbleness
of Turner's forces.
The concluding Magnificat primi toni a 8 sets the boys' voices
against those of the men in various contrapuntal combinations,
demonstrating that the younger singers are more than a match
for their senior colleagues. If I've one reservation about this
reissue it is the unfavourable comparison it draws with more
recent recordings by the choir on the same label. The young
voices here really are on top form, but I can't say the same
about the more recent recording they made of Palestrina masses
in 2009 (CDA67785 – review
On that, the intonation and balance from the boys is a regular
problem. Still, this revising of the work of the previous generation
serves to demonstrate just how it should be done. And besides,
there is no way that any choir can maintain results at this
phenomenal level indefinitely.
see also review by Brian