After twenty years, conductor Michael Harrison is disbanding his Palestrina Choir, a group devoted to bringing Palestrina and other early music to Washington. I am no Caecilian, but I am generally disgusted that the Catholic Church, in particular in the United States, has abandoned its musical heritage. Hearing this group sing its favorite pieces by their namesake, in the sanctuary of St. Matthew's Cathedral last night, only reinforced this feeling. Here was 70 minutes of music, High Renaissance polyphony in four and sometimes five parts, by which the world's dirtiness could be cleansed.
Giovanni da Palestrina (c.1526-1594) was the master of the polyphonic Mass, credited -- apocryphally -- with saving polyphonic music from the brutal reforms of the Council of Trent through the composition of his Mass setting named for Pope Marcellus II (Missa Papae Marcelli). In all, he composed over 100 polyphonic settings of the Latin Ordinary, of all styles, modes, and lengths, based on his own motets and those of others, secular songs, plainchant, and newly composed material. If the Palestrina Choir had performed one new Palestrina Mass setting at each concert, at the rate of four concerts per season, it still would have taken them longer than 20 years to get through them all. As it was, the group claims to have performed 23 of the Palestrina Masses, about a fifth of the corpus, and for their final program, they chose their favorite one, the widely known Missa Brevis (from the third book of Masses, 1570) to conclude the concert, preceded by seven of the early Palestrina motets (from the first Motecta publication in 1563) and two of the masterful middle ones (from the second motet collection in 1581).
Jens F. Laurson, Palestrina Choir (October 22, 2004)
Charles T. Downey, Early Music Festival: Palestrina Choir (June 14, 2005)
The choir's sound, although strong and lovely, did not have quite the same purity I so enjoyed last summer. The soprano and alto sections were as fine as one could hope (even though the altos were the only section to have three singers instead of four). The male singing was less felicitous, although there were nice moments, with the basses outperforming the tenors. The latter were occasionally weak in exposed moments and slightly tremulous. Salvator mundi was the least pleasing work on the first half, with an uncertain opening in the tenor part and some unexpected intonation problems. The loveliest motet was the calm, gentle Tu es pastor ovium (again a responsory, without its verse, for St. Peter and Paul's Day, June 29). It opened with the purest opening in soprano and alto parts and never rose above a sweet murmur. The first half closed with one of Palestrina's four settings of the Corpus Christi sequence Lauda Sion salvatorem. Palestrina created polyphonic settings of the first and final pairs of verses, in which motifs of the chant melody can be heard. Presumably, you are intended to sing the intervening verses in the chant original.
Ego sum panis vivus (a late medieval responsory from the office for Corpus Christi) is a familiar motet that I have sung many times, but never with the interesting musica ficta choices made here by the Palestrina Choir. The choir sounded at their absolute best in the intense Super flumina Babilonis (an offertory text used in Lent), in spite of the intruding sounds of a cell phone ringing and a watch alarm beeping. (One of these days, I will throw my shoe at a person who is responsible for this sort of faux pas.) As I mentioned previously, in the context of Verdi's Nabucco of all things, the psalm from which this text is drawn, a reference to the suffering of the Jews enslaved in Babylon, has a lot of significance for musicians. For the Palestrina Choir, the final section of this motet -- "Suspendimus organa nostra" (we hung up our instruments), punningly rife with suspensions -- becomes an expression of the end of the choir itself, ready literally to hang up their instruments ("organa" could even be translated as "polyphonic compositions," as in organum).
Missa Brevis is an uncharacteristically short Mass for Palestrina (the only one of this title among his works). Its compression comes especially in the Gloria and Credo sections, where the long texts are set simply, almost perfunctorily. The only expansive moment Palestrina allows himself in the Credo is the final Amen. Conductor Michael Harrison exaggerated this sense of Gebrauchtmusik, music that stands out more for its functionality than its beauty, by taking both long movements in an animated tempo. This was balanced in this beautiful performance by more reflective movements, like the gorgeous soprano roulades in the Sanctus and, of course, the 5-part final Agnus Dei, where the other parts were audibly subservient to the lovely twin soprano parts. For an encore, we had the motet that many missed on the program, the exquisite Sicut cervus desiderat ad fontes aquarum, whose text comes from the Tract for the Mass of Holy Saturday. In particular, it was associated with the blessing of the font, to be used that night during the Easter Vigil for baptizing the catechumens. The image of the deer panting for a running stream in this context is the desire of the converted for baptism.
You will be able to hear this program and the Palestrina Choir only two more times: this evening (May 20, 8:15 pm) at St. Rita’s Catholic Church (3815 Russell Road) in Alexandria and, as part of the Washington Early Music Festival, on June 11 at 8 pm, at St. Columba's Episcopal Church (4201 Albemarle Street NW).