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Chantry's Palestrina Christmas

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Palestrina, Missa Benedicta es,
Tallis Scholars
Ah, it is December again, and the sounds of Christmas are all around us: the rhymed Latin poetry, the theological explications of the mystery of the Virgin Birth, the Propers of the Dies natalis Christi, the complex six-voice polyphony. At least these were the sounds of the season at the Palestrina Christmas concert presented by Chantry on Saturday night, at the church of St. Mary Mother of God in Chinatown. It was my kind of Christmas concert and an easy recommendation for my December concert picks.

The centerpiece of the program was the Missa Benedicta es, a relatively early Mass setting by Palestrina, completed at some point before 1562 (see this essay on the subject by Peter Philips), when the composer was in his 30s and working as choirmaster at either the basilica of St. John Lateran or Santa Maria Maggiore. Palestrina based this Mass, using the Renaissance imitation technique, on the six-voice motet Benedicta es, caelorum regina by Josquin Des Prez, who had been a member of the papal choir in Rome in the 1490s. Josquin's motet is based in turn on the sequence melody setting that text, proper to feasts of the Virgin Mary. It is a sublime example of the medieval and Renaissance concept of creativity, building on the achievements of older generations, by which Gregorian chant was elaborated into early polyphony and later polyphony elaborated from early polyphony. It is also a historically minded gesture by Palestrina, since the plainchant incorporated into Josquin's motet -- heard in the distinctive long notes of the opening measures, transferred distinctively into the opening of Palestrina's Mass movements -- was one of the sequences removed from the Catholic liturgy by the Council of Trent around this time. The ghostly presence of deleted music is a pleasing touch.

Chantry's performance of the Josquin motet and the Palestrina Mass, reconfigured by transposition for a group of twelve singers, a mixture of men and women, was full-throated in style. In that respect it is more or less similar in conception to the more gorgeous recording by the Tallis Scholars, made with about the same number of voices (in that recording, Peter Phillips moved the key of Josquin's motet up a major third from its original notation). Transposition moves the alto parts into a range more comfortable for women, but it also makes the tenor and soprano parts very high. Music director David Taylor's choices of tempo, often fast, and dynamic shaping, making for some thrilling crescendos, just occasionally put too much stress on the high voices, which stuck out of the texture uncomfortably. Aside from one slip in the bass in the Gloria ("tu solus dominus") and some unpleasantly exposed tenor lines, it was a pleasing performance, beautifully in tune, with clean ensemble and nicely sculpted dynamic shapes (if perhaps just a bit too much of the loud side of the spectrum).

As with so many polyphonic settings of the Ordinary, the Sanctus movement is the most beautiful, with its reduction of textures (matching a similar gesture by Josquin in the secunda pars of the motet) -- unfortunately a movement that is often not sung, even when such Masses are performed in the modern liturgy. The Mass was broken up by some seasonally appropriate motets, including the stellar six-voice motet O magnum mysterium, with its mysterious opening measures (all major chords and interesting modal shifts) and angelic explosion of joy ("collaudantes dominum"). The two double-choir motets O admirabile commercium and Hodie Christus natus est were less effective, perhaps because the two choirs were physically divided, creating more problems of intonation and blend. The latter motet, however, with its infectious interpolation of shouts of "Noe" (Noel), is irresistible, one of those rare moments where even the papal choir could get away with singing words that were decidedly not liturgically proper.

This concert will repeat this weekend (December 15, 8 pm), at St. Bernadette's in Silver Spring.

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