Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA (c1525-1594) How fair thou art - Biblical passions by Palestrina
The King’s Singers: (David Hurley, Timothy Wayne-Wright (alto), Julian Gregory (tenor), Christopher Bruerton, Christopher Gabbitas (baritone), Jonathan Howard (bass))
Recorded 15 - 18 June 2015 at St Augustines Church, Kilburn, London DDD
Texts and translations included SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD450 [54:54]
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina is almost exclusively
associated with sacred music. That is understandable as he was in the
service of the church all his life. However, he also wrote madrigals:
in 1555 he published a book with four-part madrigals, followed many
years later by two books of madrigals for five and four voices respectively
(1581, 1586). This part of his output receives little attention; the
discography includes only one disc exclusively devoted to his madrigals.
The motets on texts from the Song of Songs (Canticum Canticorum
as they are called in the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible)
are pretty close to the madrigals as far as their stylistic features
are concerned. The King's Singers have recorded a selection of
eleven motets from the collection of 29 which he published as his fourth
book of motets in 1584. One of the texts appears twice: the first setting
performed here is from the first book of motets of 1569.
"Framing the twelve (sic) settings of Canticum Canticorum
on this recording are four Marian motets by Palestrina", David
Hurley writes in his liner-notes. These are the classical four Marian
antiphons which have been set so often throughout history. Referring
to the Salve Regina he states that "[the] fervour of this
setting matches the passion of the settings of words from the Song of
Songs." It is regrettable that he makes no attempt to connect the
two categories represented here and also misses the point in regard
to the meaning of the Song of Songs motets.
The connection between them is the veneration of the Virgin Mary. Since
ancient times the love poetry of the Song of Songs has been given a
spiritual interpretation. In his notes to Pro Cantione Antiqua's
recording (Hyperion, 1994) Bruno Turner writes: "But the Songs
must be seen, and the music heard, in the context of an age of Roman
Catholic Counter-Reformation fervour, an age devoted by Roman authority
to the triumph of the Virgin as well as her tenderness. The Spouse of
the allegory is not only the Church or the individual soul but the bride
who is represented by Our Lady the Mediator and by the Queen of Heaven,
the One arrayed for battle, even the woman of the Apocalypse; certainly
to Palestrina's contemporaries, the Virgin who won the Battle
of Lepanto (1571) and for whom the Papacy instituted the Feast of Our
Lady of Victory." This also explains that Palestrina dedicated
this collection to Pope Gregory XIII. "[This] particular Pope was
a worldly man", Hurley writes. That may be true but in respect
to these motets his previous mention of Gregory's active support
of the Counter Reformation is far more relevant. After all, the status
of the Virgin Mary was one of the main points of difference between
Protestants and Catholics.
From that angle the mixture of motets on texts from the Song of Songs
and the four Marian antiphons makes much sense. They are certainly connected
in the passion with which they are set - as far as one can expect that
from Palestrina who certainly is not the most 'passionate'
of composers - but more significantly they emphasize the importance
of the Virgin Mary in the Roman Catholic doctrine. They represent two
sides of the church, as it were. The antiphons were part of the liturgy:
they are a fixed part of the Liturgy of the Hours. The Song of Songs
motets, on the other hand, are not suitable for liturgical use but were
rather written for domestic performance. The fact that no fewer than
eleven editions of this collection are known attests to their popularity.
These differences should also be reflected in the performances and maybe
even the venues where they are recorded. The acoustic is pretty intimate
and that suites the motets rather well. The same goes for the 'madrigalistic'
approach of The King's Singers. As a result the texts are clearly
audible, despite the largely polyphonic texture of these motets. There
is not much text expression here and the performers don't try
to underline some elements in the text. However, there are some traces
of contrast between the motets, for instance the jubilant nature of
Tota pulchra es - "All fair thou art" which inspired
to this disc's title - and the ensuing Nigra sum: "I
am black but beautiful" which is dominated by dark colours.
I would have liked a little more reverberation in the Marian antiphons.
Their liturgical character doesn't come off that well; I also
think that this kind of music requires a slightly larger ensemble than
one-to-a-part as we have here. I also would prefer a more 'liturgical'
style of singing where the words would get more weight.
I just wonder which audiences a disc like this aims at. Those who want
to have a recording of the complete Song of Songs motets can choose
from several interpretations, for instance Pro Cantione Antiqua but
also the Hilliard Ensemble (Virgin Classics), Magnificat (Linn Records),
the Ensemble William Byrd (Jade) and the Capella Dvcale Venetia (CPO).
There are probably more. This disc may appeal mainly to admirers of
The King's Singers. They will certainly not be disappointed.
Disc contents Alma redemptoris mater [02:54] Quam pulchri sunt gressus tui [02:48] Pulchrae sunt genae tuae [03:27] Tota pulchra es anima mea [02:38] Nigra sum, sed formosa [03:17] Regina coeli [02:11] Trahe me, post te [03:22] Veni, veni dilecte mi [02:44] Surge, propera amica mea [02:21] Descendi in hortum meum [03:02] Ave regina coelorum [05:29] Sicut lilium inter spinas (1569) [04:41] Osculetur me [02:35] Ecce tu pulcher es [02:24] Sicut lilium inter spinas [03:58] Salve Regina [06:59]