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Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA (ca.1525-1694)
Tu es Petrus [7:12]
Missa Tu es Petrus [30:14]
Sicut Cervus [5:17]
Caro Mea [4:11]
Canite Tuba [6:50]
Improperium Expectavit [4:08]
Surrexit Pastor Bonus [5:52]
Choir of St Luke in the Fields/David Shuler
rec. 2017, St Mary the Virgin, New York
MSR CLASSICS MS1698 [63:43]

The church of St Luke in the Fields dates back to 1820 when it was built in the style of an “English village church” on farmland at Greenwich Village. It was later subsumed within a neighbouring parish, “only regaining its independence in 1976”, after which it promptly burnt down; so the current building really only dates back to 1985. Yet this unassuming and largely overlooked New York church has given birth to a remarkable musical phenomenon. Founded in 1974, the Orchestra of St Luke’s has gone on to become one of the USA’s leading ensembles, long since outgrowing the church in which it gave its first performance and which gave it its name. The church’s choir, however, retains its links with the church, and its director (for the past 20 years), David Shuler, is also the church’s current Director of Music and Organist. Yet, if this recording is anything to go by (and I regret that I have not heard the choir before this) it must stand as one of the USA’s leading specialist choral groups in the field of sacred music. Of course, the recording location has done much to enhance the sense of sheer sumptuousness which informs this entire disc, and since the church itself certainly does not look to have the kind of opulent, generous acoustic we hear on this recording, it’s no surprise that Shuler and his singers moved to another New York church for the recording sessions.

Any successful performance of Palestrina relies on absolute clarity of texture and impeccable balancing of the polyphonic lines. Shuler achieves all that here, and while his singers certainly lack for nothing in clarity of texture and precision of tuning, they also show a remarkable transparency in their diction and a thorough awareness of the interweaving lines. Here is a choir which clearly listens as well as it sings. They avoid the kind of musical waves which so often result from a conscious attempt to trace the ebbing and flowing of the polyphony, yet successfully dovetail the polyphonic intersections. Only in the very opening of the motet Surrexit Pastor Bonus is there the merest hint of a lapse of concentration where some unevenness in tone is momentarily to be heard. Otherwise the vocal blend is magnificent and the balance between these 14 voices excellent.

The recording centres around the large-scale and often complex Missa Tu es Petrus. Perhaps surprisingly, this is not a work overly represented in the current catalogues, and so this excellent performance fills something of a gap. More than that though, Shuler’s feel for this music, his expansive approach which allows the intricately detailed textures plenty of space to breathe and evolve, makes this a highly distinguished performance in its own right.

The remainder of the programme covers some fairly familiar ground – notably the motets Sicut Cervus and Tu es Petrus – as well as some less frequently heard items. All of them are delivered with such a strong sense of stylistic understanding that this could well be the stand-out Palestrina CD of recent times. In short, if you only have one Palestrina disc, this should be it, and if you already have several dozen, you need to add this to your collection. It really is a marvellous display of intelligent and perceptive music-making.

Marc Rochester

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