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Chantry Premieres New Edition of Allegri's "Miserere"

Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652)
Chantry offered audiences in D.C. and Silver Spring a program called “Holy Week in Renaissance Rome,” an uplifting evening of early music for unaccompanied voices. The focal point of the concert was the director David Taylor's own edition of Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere mei, Deus, a version of Psalm 50 that has been performed in the Sistine Chapel for Tenebrae (the dark, funeral-like services in Holy Week) for centuries since its composition in 1638. During a period that the Catholic Church was expanding beyond the extensive use of chant, the fresh polyphonic work for double-choir was so highly regarded – in part for its memorable high C – that under threat of excommunication, all were barred from copying or distributing the score to anyone. Interestingly, Mozart at the age of fourteen, after hearing the Sistine Chapel services, was able to memorize and then dictate the score for publication in England in 1771, though he left out the prized secret embellishments of the second choir.

The background of the mystery, secrecy, and fame surrounding the work was thoroughly explained to the audience in the eight full pages of single-spaced small-point program notes that could easily take twenty minutes to peruse. Additionally, instead of just verbal program notes, an extensive “show and tell” was held, with the conductor having the choir sing the “high-arching” first phrase of the piece in the following ways, each prefaced by Taylor. His point was that for the famous high B or C – notably heard by Mendelssohn in a performance in his day – to be included, the entire piece must be transposed up in its entirety, instead of just a small section.

Although a noble effort at “achieving a performance that reproduces the music just as it was sung by the Papal Choir in Allegri’s own time or two centuries that follow” as stated in the program notes, the concert was indeed far from the ideal of authenticity. Perhaps a more authentic experience for the audience could have been gained by trimming the dry technical side of the presentation, while inviting the audience to close their eyes and imagine they were indeed experiencing the work in the context of a Triduum liturgy in the splendor of the Sistine Chapel, with the profound liturgical events leading up to the singing of the Miserere by castrati, and all of the spiritual dimensions involved therein.

The plainsong and other works on the program by Palestrina, Gesualdo, Lassus, and Victoria were generally well done. The stamina of the singers to sing such a full program with such control was admirable and inspiring. Though a general lack of audible consonants led to incomprehensible diction, the Gregorian chant mostly sounded like a bland string of eighth-notes with the text taking a backseat, and the polyphony yearned to be freed from being busily conducted in smaller note values. It was a remarkable evening for listeners -- musically, intellectually, and emotionally -- to prepare for Holy Week.

Chantry will close its season with a complete performance of the monumental 10-voice Great Service by William Byrd (April 28, 8 pm), at St. Paul's K Street.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If you like Chantry, you will also enjoy Carmina. Their next concert is on June 2 and 3 at Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church.