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Christmas Addendum: Palestrina Masses

Available from Amazon
Palestrina, Masses and Motets, Choir of King's College, Cambridge, P. Ledger, D. Willcocks

EMI Classics 50999 2 17655 2 0
EMI missed quite an opportunity by not packaging this re-release as a Christmas disc. Among these classic recordings, made at King's College in Cambridge in the 1970s and brought together here in digitally remastered versions, are the motet Hodie Christus natus est and the Christmas Day Mass for double choir based on that piece, as well as the motets Canite tuba (Fourth Sunday of Advent), Ave Maria (and the late-period Missa Ave Maria), and O magnum mysterium and Tui sunt caeli (Christmas). Add to those works, conducted by Philip Ledger, two legendary recordings by Ledger's predecessor at King's, David Willcocks, of the Missa Papae Marcelli and the ever-popular Missa brevis.

Digital remastering cannot hide the more drab and moldy aspects of these performances, the over-dominant, occasionally shrill boy treble sound, miked so closely, and the sometimes embarrassing warble of overexcited adult male voices. The predominant musical quality is one of almost mannered calm, the result of an overly "Cecilian" reverence for the purity of the Palestrina choral aesthetic. Tempi tend toward the gently arching, with the exception of some soupy rallentandi at conclusions. The chant incipits are among the dullest performances of chant ever to reach my ears, sung like ill-understood archeological specimens rather than as living music of any interest. One could nitpick more, but when all is said and done, it gave me considerable pleasure to hear these performances again, as a relic of their time.

Incredibly, the Ave Maria and Hodie Christus Masses have not been widely recorded at all, but that is true of almost all of the over 100 (!) settings of the Ordinary that Palestrina composed. For musical quality alone, you are much better off with the more recent and superior recordings from the illustrious program of Westminster Cathedral -- Missa Ave Maria under James O'Donnell and Missa Hodie Christus natus est under Martin Baker -- both available as rather expensive imports from Hyperion. (The latter is a collection of works for Advent and Christmas and, although pricey, would make an excellent Christmas gift for the musically savvy friend on your list.) Still, at $13 for over two hours of Palestrina goodness, this 2-CD set recommends itself.



Anonymous said...

The Hodie Christus natus est Mass is the ordinary used in the McCreesh/Gabrieli Consort & Players program "Christmas in Rome" (On CD and DVD). I like the performance, and the whole program, a lot, but it's very different from what you'd get from most choirs: lower pitch, all adult men with countertenors on the top line, organ continuo (McCreesh set a notional performance date of around 1600). And the tempos are fast; they really gallop through the music.

Charles T. Downey said...

Ooh--that's good to know. I must try to hear that. I suspect that I would like that even more. Thanks for the tip.