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16.8.06

Canticum Canticorum

Cambridge, King's College, MS 19, f. 12v (from St. Alban's, 12th century), verse 1 of the Song of Songs, image scanned by Prof. E. Ann Matter
Cambridge, King's College, MS 19, f. 12v (from St. Alban's, 12th century), verse 1 of the Song of Songs, image scanned by Prof. E. Ann Matter
The Song of Songs is one of the most beautiful and most problematic books of the Bible. There are countless commentaries on it, from the patristic age to our own time. I studied many of them while researching some chant settings of the Song of Songs, for a paper I read at the Kalamazoo medieval studies meeting -- "Let Him Kiss Me with the Kiss of His Mouth: Late Votive Antiphons in Honor of the Virgin Mary," 31st International Congress on Medieval Studies (Medieval Institute, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan), 9 May 1996. The oldest known liturgical use of these amorous texts, interpreted allegorically by Christian theologians as the love between the soul and God or between the Virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit, goes back to the Roman schola cantorum. A few verses, found in the oldest surviving manuscripts of Gregorian chant, were used for liturgies dedicated to Mary or found in the Common of Virgins. The pieces that I studied were part of the flowering of Marian devotion in the 12th and 13th centuries, florid new antiphons found in later medieval manuscripts, sometimes without specific liturgical assignment.

In this historical context, I see no reason to suspect that Giovanni da Palestrina's polyphonic motet cycle drawn from the Song of Songs is somehow secretly a secular work. In this new recording's liner notes, Vincenzo Soravia (translation by Susan Marie Praeder) only suggests this by mentioning that Palestrina had married his second wife in 1581, after surviving a tragic period in his life in the previous decade. For his fourth book of published motets (Motettorum liber quartus ex Canticis canticorum, 1583-84), Palestrina selected just under half of the book's verses, arranged into 29 motets, set to music of almost uniform length (on this recording, all of the tracks last around two minutes). Indeed, in his dedication of the publication, addressed to Pope Gregory XIII, Palestrina publicly regretted that he had in his youth devoted a small part of his creative energy to the composition of secular madrigals.

Available at Amazon:
available at Amazon
Giovanni da Palestrina, Canticum Canticorum, Capella Dvcale Venetia, Livio Picotti (released on June 20, 2006)
This is hardly the first recording of Palestrina's cycle: complete versions are available from, among others, Pro Cantione Antiqua (Hyperion), the Ensemble William Byrd (Jade), the Cambridge Singers (Collegium), and best of all, the Hilliard Ensemble (EMI, paired with the sacred madrigal cycle Priego alla Beata Vergine). The singing on this new recording from Cpo is lovely, if not quite up to the quality of the Hilliard Ensemble. There are minor intonation problems in the treble voices (track 13, in particular), and soprano Ulrike Wurdak's sound is occasionally slightly discolored. The sound quality is quite good, capturing something of the reverent resonance of its locale, the abbey church of Sant'Antimo in Montalcino, near Siena. At various points, we can hear a player's chair creaking. This is music intended for the choir, so we hear it as if we are among them.

What distinguishes this new recording is the performance practice. Director Livio Picotti had the six singers of his Capella Dvcale Venetia -- five men and one woman, who are in various arrangements, since all of these motets are for five voices -- sing one on a part, accompanied by an improvised basso continuo, realized by two players, on a lute (or theorbo) and an organ. This invented part is derived from Palestrina's bass line: when the composer reduces the texture to only upper voices, it disappears. The instrumental part is discreetly rendered, never obtrusive, a gentle support for the voices. We know that Victoria actually composed some continuo parts for his polyphonic works, but mostly in the last ten or fifteen years of his life, after Palestrina was dead. I am not aware that Palestrina himself ever actually used the continuo directly (which does not mean there may not be evidence of it), but it makes a lovely sound in this unusual performance. Picotti's intention may have been to make Palestrina's sacred music sound more like the vocal chamber music of the stile moderno. It is an experiment well worth hearing.

cpo 777 142-2

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