I had never heard of Studio de Musique Ancienne who are based
in Montréal, but I am very glad that I have made their
acquaintance via this interesting CD.
The CD is subtitled ‘Polychoral Music at St. Peter’s
Basilica, Rome’. You may associate this style with Venice
but how wrong could you be. Pope Julius II - he of Michelangelo
fame - gave the papal choir the name of ‘Capella Giulia’.
Under the direction of composers like Palestrina it built up
a huge and even now, mostly unexplored repertoire, some of it
even earlier than the Gabrielis.
Unusually I will quote a large portion of the accompanying essay
by François Filiatrault. The ‘stile antico’
was the style of most the 16th Century and we are
told that it “was evolving towards a Baroque ideal, towards
a Roman version of the concertante style … We hear …
frequent change of rhythms, which are often based on dances,
and more marked contrast of musical imagery borrowed from the
madrigalists.” Nowhere is this most noticeable than in
the longest work recorded here the twelve-part, three-choirMissa
Beata es Virgo Maria by Ugolini who directed the choir between
1620-1626. Even in the Kyrie he moves a little into a dancing
triple tempo. The Credo is much the longest movement and is
full of word-painting and imaginative contrasts of all sorts.
The Benedictus is a delightful movement, enhanced by the instrumental
work of harp, violin and cello with organ adding a colour and
However, and this brings me to a sad gripe, despite the fact
that we are told that the ‘stile antico’ is full
of strong contrasts, the performance both of this Mass and elsewhere
on the disc, though beautiful and elegant is somewhat withheld
and understated. It lacks attack, a sense of excitement and
danger that some sections demand. Sadly it can be a bit too
The earliest composer represented is Orlando de Lassus. He worked
briefly at St. John’s Lateran church in Rome. The motet
Domine, quid multiplicata, a setting of Psalm 3, is one
of only two by this most prolific of composers for triple choir.
It is a sonorous and mostly homophonic piece which is sung with
a certain amount of passion. The booklet notes tell us that
the final passage is “especially notable for its richness
and intensity” in which all of “the voices combine
in a vigorous tutti”. Again I don’t quite feel that
this is sufficiently brought out in this performance.
This style of performance comes off beautifully however in the
calm and serenely conversational setting of the Ave Regina
caelorum by de Macque. This was published in Rome when the
composer was in his mid-forties and working there.
It has to be admitted that most of these composers are not household
names even amongst keen musicians. That also apples to the three
remaining figures. Francesco Soriano brought to Rome “the
revolution of Monteverdi”. He was, it seems, one of the
first to use basso continuo, so clearly audible in this recording,
with voices. You can hear this in his adulatory motet In
dedicatione templi. The three choirs rebound and resound
to the words ‘Glory to you GOD/The sweet sounds resounded’.
With Orazio Benevoli we have moved more clearly into the baroque
era. In the motet Laudate pueri Dominum (Psalm 113) we
are also still in the world of cori spezzati as this amazing
piece is for four antiphonal choirs. The other motets are definitely
of the ‘secondo prattica’. The curious text of O
Sacramentum pietatis is set for two sopranos with continuo
and Juravit Dominum just sets two lines from Psalm 109
in a very showy way for four solo sopranos. This comes off exceptionally
It’s curious in some ways that the disc should start with
the most modern piece on the CD, the sixteen voice setting of
Psalm 110 the Dixit Dominus by Pitoni set at about the
same time by Handel. Pitoni’s setting is glorious, especially
the declamations of the middle section and its coruscating and
highly contrapuntal final bars. It certainly makes a lively
and positive beginning to the programme. Most of this composer’s
work lies languishing in the Vatican archives; more’s
the pity after you have heard this powerful setting.
So, as can often be the case in the early music choral world,
a bit of a mixed bag, but certainly worth exploring.