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Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA (1525 - 1594) Lamentations of Jeremiah I-III: Book IV for five and six voices
Feria V. in Coena Domini [25:10]
Feria in Parasceve [25:01]
Sabbato Sancto [23:56]
Pro Cantione Antiqua (Timothy Penrose (counter-tenor); Ashley Stafford (counter-tenor); James Griffett (tenor); Neil Jenkins (tenor); Ian Partridge (tenor); Michael George (bass); Christopher Keyte (bass); Stephen Roberts (bass))/Bruno Turner
rec. 1988, St. Alban's Church Brook Street, London DDD
Originally issued, 1988 Novello/Allegro
ALTO ALC 1142 [74:31]


 
This is a reissue on Musical Concepts’ Alto label of choral polyphony first recorded issued at that time on CD in 1988, some 25 years ago. Pro Cantione Antiqua, one of the first British 'Early' music groups and now defunct, was founded in 1968 by tenor James Griffett, counter-tenor Paul Esswood, and conductor and producer Mark Brown. These London-based singers almost immediately became associated with conductor and musicologist Bruno Turner, and with exactly this kind of repertoire.
 
The ensemble changed its membership over the years. For this recording, of music discovered in the nineteenth century, the eight voices (two counter-tenor, three tenors and three basses) include some that are still active. Here they perform a selection from the fourth of five settings which Palestrina made of the Eastertide Lamentations - lessons for Holy Week. While Palestrina published one of these sets in 1588, the others remained obscure, unpublished and unperformed. At the start of the nineteenth century music scholar Pietro Alfieri (1801 - 1863) discovered the Fourth Book.
 
For all that the singing style with which Renaissance choral polyphony is performed these days has changed, Pro Cantione Antiqua does a great job. Their articulation could hardly be cleaner: every syllable is audible. Yet at no time does their care and studied enunciation substitute for expression and gentle love of the texts and their religious import.
 
The long vowels of the second Lectio of Feria V. [tr.2], for instance, are open and are given space and room yet are never drawn out excessively. Neither are they overblown beyond the need to allow these luscious polyphonic textures to bloom. The phrasing, the long lambent lines of the text, are approached this way: with regret, true lament, with sorrow. This is in quiet keeping with their emotional purpose.
 
At the same time, there is no sense of Turner having wanted to confer spurious uniformity on the tempi and textures. Rather, each Lamentation, each section thereof, is almost self-contained and delicately structured so as to make the greatest impact when taken in sequence. So there's no sense that the singers are 'bending' towards a climax. Instead, they're unobtrusively and implicitly alluding to a tragedy; drawing on serenity and calm so as to come to terms with it.
 
Even here, the singing style isn't built on an over-involvement that might run the risk either of 'acting' the burden of the Hebrew portrayal and evocation of grief; or of straying too close to it for the singing to remain crafted. In fact the sense of gloom and distress is conveyed - as did Morales, whose work Palestrina knew - by minor tonalities, generally slow tempi and a sense, if not of detachment, then of resignation.
 
You're likely to come away from listening to the performance of this beautiful music on this CD both refreshed and with a sense of calm. Turner's understanding, and that of his singers, of Palestrina's purpose in setting these texts is sound, perceptive and rich in insight.
 
Pro Cantione Antiqua never allows effect or over-coloured delivery to swamp or disguise Palestrina's aims. That there are usually only five or six (of Pro Cantione Antiqua's eight) voices singing in any one piece helps to create this measured and effective intimacy. The pared down atmosphere loses nothing of the beauty of the music. This is a performance from a group at the centre of the British school of choral polyphony performance. On the other hand it is never in the richer, fuller-sounding tradition of the Tallis Scholars - see by some as successors to Pro Cantione Antiqua. The solo voices are more distinguishable here so the performance becomes more personal and more anchored to communication and less to Palestrina's sumptuousness - exactly what's needed for this exquisite music.
 
The acoustic - that of St. Alban's Church Brook Street, London - is pleasingly transparent. The recording, perhaps surprisingly, hardly shows its age. It's more than adequate to convey the atmosphere of the music's occasion, though. The notes that come with the CD are minimal: on three sides of a printed foldout insert. There are no texts; only Turner's own notes from 1989 on the relationship between Palestrina and the Lamentations, and Alfieri's discovery.
 
If you respond to Palestrina for the highpoint that he represents in choral singing, you should look very carefully at this CD; it's the only one in the current catalogue with the Fourth Book - and well deserves to keep its place now that it has been reissued.
 
This is a welcome re-issue of music unavailable elsewhere; and most beautifully sung.
 

Mark Sealey
 


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