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Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA (1525/6-1594)
Confitebor Tibi Domine [6:02]
Ricercar del sesto tuono
Missa Confitebor Tibi Domine
Introduxit me rex in cellam
Ricercar del quinto tuono
Benedicta sit sancta Trinitas
Loquebantur variis linguis
Magnificat primi toni 8
Liuwe Tamminga (organ)
Bruce Dickey (cornett)
Yale Schola Cantorum, David Hill
rec. 2014/15, Christ Church Newhaven, USA; Basilica of San Marino, Bologna, Italy

With David Hill as its conductor, and Masaaki Suzuki (not on this CD) its principal guest conductor, the Yale Schola Cantorum (which was founded in 2003 by Simon Carrington) should have an impressive birthright. Ultimately part of Yale University, the Schola’s performances like this one of the splendid Confitebor Tibi Domine Mass and half a dozen shorter sacred and secular pieces do indeed reflect admirably on these musicians’ heritage.

The sublime motet Confitebor Tibi Domine begins the CD. It was written at a time when the Counter Reformation demanded greater clarity and audibility of texts, particularly when set for many voices, as here. The six sections of the Mass are interspersed in this presentation with five instrumental works and the relatively short Magnificat primi toni a 8, which ends the CD. This variety, of course, is in accord with contemporary practice. Listeners who prefer to experience the movements of the Mass united may - in compensation - like to identify the (re-)appearance of (material from) the opening of the motet itself at the beginning of each movement of the Confitebor Mass; and its final lines at the end of the Gloria, Credo and Agnus Dei.

The Yale Schola Cantorum approaches the programme with singing that both dignifies and projects the grand, slightly ethereal, yet very immediate nature of this music in such a sequence. At no time does the inclusion of organ or cornett become intrusive. We know that on such special days as the patronal feast days for which this music was possibly composed and certainly performed in the late 1570s and 1580s extra singers (and instrumentalists) were engaged to add to the splendour of the cori spezzati in the opulent new early Baroque Roman churches in which Palestrina was working after his ‘exclusion’ from St Peter’s… married men were disqualified from holding such office there.

In fact, Palestrina (re-)worked these pieces to reflect the fact that the whole choir was situated in one place – the cantoria on the Sistine Chapel’s right wall – and not spatially divided: polychordal writing took the place of antiphonal. Yet the accounts on this CD have nothing to do with spectacle or impact. Listen, for instance, to the gently exalted Benedictus [tr.10]. Nothing is hurried; yet nothing is laboured. The singing is neither unduly magnified or extruded to make a point; nor are the transcendental harmonies of Palestrina’s writing lost or assumed to have been heard by us, the listeners. Hill and the Schola are instead emphasising communication, communion and a barely suppressed delight. And, as perhaps should be the case, the place of music in its confessional context comes to rest with great satisfaction and calm in the Agnus Dei [tr.11] of the Mass. Nothing is left unsaid. And nothing is repeated. Admirably expressive and persuasive singing.

Decorousness, authority, clarity and a sense of the music’s great beauty and its (apparently so easily achieved) heights are conveyed with humility and gravitas by the Yale Schola Cantorum from beginning to end on this CD. You sense that they are sufficiently professional and aware of their accomplishments to understand that this recording is intended to suggest that here are experts, and they are completely engrossed in what they do so well. Yet at the same time to suggest that such expertise involves a little bit of magic – in the peacefulness and pacing of their singing: they have all the time in the world. Yet when the last notes die away, you realise that their sense of time has not deceived. It brings you gently back, maybe, to… where you began.

Surprisingly, perhaps, there is only one other comparable recording of the Mass and the Magnificat (both on Four Winds 3028); one of the Benedicta (Chandos 732) and of the Ricercari (a Euroarts DVD 2072578); the Introduxit has a handful. So this is a useful collection, expertly performed. If you believe in the power of Palestrina to touch the soul in the way that little other music can or does, then you should certainly get this CD. Although there can be discerned some distortion - the result of over-modulation by the recording engineer(s) - in the choral tracks, particularly at the higher volumes. This is intrusive and will certainly detract for many listeners. Not at all usual for Hyperion.

The acoustics (the choral works in the ‘local’ Christ Church Newhaven, Connecticut; and the instrumental ones in the San Marino Basilica in Bologna) are ample and aid the music. Voices are to be heard distinctly, words are all distinguishable and the overall impression cannot be too far from the businesslike yet impressive way in which Palestrina surely wanted his music to be heard. The booklet is brief and limits itself to descriptions of the works, their texts in Latin and English with brief paragraphs about the performers.

Mark Sealey



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