Monday 4 April 2016

How Fair Thou Art: Biblical Passions by Palestrina - The King's Singers

How Fair Art Thou -- King's Singers - Signum Classics
Palestrina Marian motets and Canticum Canticorum; The Kings Singers; Signum Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 24 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Palestrina's sacred madrigals in intimate performances

The King's Singers turn their attention again to early music for this new disc on Signum Classics, How Fair Thou Art: Biblical Passions by Palestrina where they perform a selection of Palestrina's sacred madrigals from Canticum Canticorum (Song of Songs) alongside Marian motets, Alma Redemptoris Mater, Regina Coeli, Ave regina coelorum, Salve Regina

How do you want your Palestrina to sound? Groups tend to recreate Palestrina’s music in their own image so the sound owes a lot to the group’s style, whether it be an all male cathedral choir, a mixed professional choir or a vocal ensemble. And whilst Palestrina wrote choral music for choirs such as that at the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, he also wrote music for the Sistine Chapel Choir where the music was performed just one to a part with an ensemble which included castrati on the upper lines. By the 19th century this tradition had grown into a rather soloistic style performance.

These questions are relevant because how Palestrina’s music sounds can vary significantly depending on the performers. On this disc the six men of the King’s Singers ( David Hurley (countertenor), Timothy Wayne-Wright (countertenor), Julian Gregory (tenor), Christopher Bruerton (baritone), Christopher Gabbitas (baritone), Jonathan Howard (bass)) perform a selection of Palestrina’s motets. They sing in a beautifully blended style with individual voices often subsumed into the overall sound image. These performances have a significant amount of surface polish, poise and style, technically they are very impressive. They are also recorded quite closely, and though the singers are clearly experienced in performing early music, the intimate acoustic rather links the pieces to the vocal ensemble’s other performances rather then those of contrasting ensembles such as the Sixteen or Westminster Cathedral Choir.

But the repertoire chosen for the disc does, indeed, have non-liturgical links so exploring a different is appropriate. The centre piece of the disc is 12 sacred madrigals from Palestrina’s settings of texts from the Song of Songs. The texts are explicitly erotic, though the Church interpreted them as referring to the relationship between Christ and his Church. Palestrina’s music style here is perhaps a little more unbuttoned but certainly a world away from some of his contemporaries' more erotic madrigals, and in his dedicatory preface Palestrina makes it clear that the settings were intended to have Christian if non-liturgical theme.
I dwelt at some length on the sound of these performances, it is their most particular quality and will decide whether you want to listen to the disc. The counter tenors David Hurley and Timothy Wayne-Wright have sweet slimline tone voice which sit at the top of the texture nicely and expressively, whilst the bass Jonathan Howard clearly has not problems with the low tessitura required to accommodate the performers. They really bring out the madrigal-like quality of the pieces. Whilst there are recordings of the Song of Songs from choirs like the Sixteen which are perfectly admirable, you feel that the Kings Singers performing them as madrigals might get closer to the original tradition. There is a suggestion that this music might have been written for performance in a non-liturgical setting for the Pope, Gregory XIII, who was quite a worldly man.

The acknowledgements at the end of the CD booklet include some notable names including David Skinner who produced new editions of the music, and Nigel Short who produced the disc.

I have to confess that I was somewhat surprised at the style of performance on this disc when I first heard it, but repeated listening made me come to appreciate the madrigalian qualities that the singers bring out in the music.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594) - Alma redemptoris mater
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina - Quam pulchri sunt gressus tui
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina - Pulchrae sunt genae
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina - Tota pulchra es anima mea
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina - Nigra sum, sed Formosa
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina - Regina Caeli
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina - Trahe me, post te
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina - Veni, veni delicte mi
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina - Surge, propera amica mea
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina - Descendi in hortum meum
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina - Ave regina caelorum
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina - Sicut lilium inter spinas I
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina - Osculetur
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina - Ecce tu pulcher es
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina - Sicut lilium inter spinas II
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina - Salve Regina
The King's Singers (David Hurley, Timothy Wayne-Wright, Julian Gregory, Christopher Bruerton, Christopher Gabbitas, Jonathan Howard)
Recorded St Augustine's Church, Kilburn 15-18 June 2015.
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