Monday 11 December 2023

The glories of Roman polychoral music after Palestrina explored by I Fagiolini with Benevoli's Missa Tu es Petrus for four choirs

Orazio Benevoli: Missa Tu es Petrus; Palestrina; Bonifazio Graziani; I Fagiolini, the City Musick, Robert Hollingworth; Coro

Orazio Benevoli: Missa Tu es Petrus; Palestrina; Bonifazio Graziani; I Fagiolini, the City Musick, Robert Hollingworth; Coro
Reviewed 11 December 2023

An exploration of the rare splendours of 17th-century 16-part mass based on Palestrina's motet, richly inventive and full of gorgeous textures, a work that is certainly not deserving of its relative obscurity

Palestrina died in 1594 and for the following century his music remained a prime example of concerted church music with other composers writing in a similar style. The result is a high degree of stylistic diversity as the 17th century developed and only now are we really exploring the highways and byways. 

This recent disc from Robert Hollingworth, I Fagiolini and the City Musick on the Coro label features the music of Orazio Benevoli (1605-1672) and Bonifazio Graziani (1604/5-1664), focusing on Benevoli's four choir Missa Tu es Petrus based on Palestrina's motet. 

Little of Benevoli's music has made it onto disc and this disc seems to be Missa Tu es Petrus' first recording. But amazingly, despite the work's relative modern obscurity, I actually sang in a performance of Benevoli's Missa Tu es Petrus in July 2000 when Malcolm Cottle conducted London Concord Singers and friends in a performance, an amazing and ambitious undertaking.

So who was Orazio Benevoli? His Father was French but settled in Italy where the young Orazio was a chorister at San Luigi dei Francesi, the French church in Rome, famed for the sumptuous forces it assembled to perform polychoral music on major feast days. From the age of 19 he worked as choir director there and at another Roman church, then in the 1640s he worked in Vienna (for the Emperor's brother) before returning to Rome and ending up as maestro of the unrivalled Cappella Giulia, the Julian Choir at St Peter’s.

This was a period when Bernini's massive bronze canopy was completed at St Peter's (in 1634), meaning that the church no longer had a traditional enclosed quire and instead there was vast unenclosed space. How to fill it? This was a question that the young Berlioz mused on, but during Benevoli's time the tradition of using multiple choirs for feast days developed. Benevoli's training back at San Luigi dei Francesi came in useful.

And not just four choirs, a four-choir work could be performed with eight choirs, and there was even twelve choir mass for Ascension day at St Peter's, each choir representing one of the Apostles (shades of Robert Wylkynson's Credo writ large).

You also have to bear in mind the religious and liturgical developments of the time. The Tridentine liturgy was relatively new ( the Council of Trent took place from 1545 to 1563) so this remarkably luxurious music was designed to complement the splendour of the new liturgy.

For this performance of Benevoli's mass, Robert Hollingworth keeps his performing forces relatively tight, just 16 singers, six instrumentalists (cornett, violin, recorder, trombone, bass violin, dulcian) and four continuo (harp, chitarrone and two organs)

The pitch is relatively low, so we have low sopranos (these would originally have been castrati), high tenors, baritones and basses. The performance information that we have from the time, through payment information for extra singers and instrumentalists, suggests that the top and bottom lines of each choir were reinforced by instruments, because the castrati were relatively weak and the basses singing low in their range, whereas the middle two voices were in the centre of their range. This is what is done here, which brings a lovely variety of colour and timbre to the work.

We begin with a lovely clear account of Palestrina's original motet, the 12 voices giving the music a finely fluid flow with great sense of contrast between the upper and lower choirs. Benevoli's mass begins in quite low-key manner but then more choirs come in creating a gorgeously rich texture. What is engaging about this performance is the way that Hollingworth and his performers do not simply luxuriate in these textures, the music has a fluid sense of flow and the plentiful moments when the textures recede to fewer lines are more intimate. 

One of the interesting things about the writing is the way that Benevoli shapes his forces, not always writing for the four choirs and using sub-groupings to create differences in colour and textures, including exploring moments when, say, all the sopranos are used without any other voices. This means that the big moments would have been big indeed.

Also, Benevoli is adept at changing the pace, after the riches of the end of the Kyrie, the Gloria begins by seeming to move at a slower pace, building towards a climaxes that signals a change of tempo and texture. Throughout the mass, Benevoli is at pains to keep things fluid, this is rarely wall of sound writing. For all that, there is plenty going on in the Credo and you surely would easily lose track of the words. After the dazzling moments so far, the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei are more intimate, less out to confound. It is interesting, because in the Palestrina tradition, the Agnus Dei was often the place for something new, an extra voice for instance, but here the movement is relatively intimate.

In contrast to the luxuries of the mass, we have a group of smaller scale motets by Benevoli's contemporary, Bonifazio Graziani (1604/5-1664) who from 1646 was maestro at the Jesuit Pontifical Roman Seminary and its church, the Gesù. Whilst he did write grand polychoral settings, the motets here, from his 1650 publication of motets for two to six voices, are intimate, often intended to replace the propers. We hear works for three to six voices, and Graziani's use of the voices is often more soloistic than choral, ensembles. Here given engagingly intimate performances with discreet continuo accompaniment.

Recording Benevoli's Missa Tu es Petrus - I Fagiolini, Robert Hollingworth, The City Music (Photo: Matt Brodie Photography)
Recording Benevoli's Missa Tu es Petrus - I Fagiolini, Robert Hollingworth, The City Music (Photo: Matt Brodie Photography)

Benevoli's mass is probably one of those that more people know of than know, but this disc demonstrates it is a not inconsiderable work that deserves greater currency. Here sung one to a part, the results are grand where necessary, but we never lose sight that this is a large vocal ensemble, singing one to a part, with the requisite feeling of a group of individuals each contributing to the whole.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594) - Tu es Petrus
Orazio Benevoli (1605-1672) - Missa Tu es Petrus
Bonifazio Graziani (1604/5-1664) - Domine, ne in furore tuo
Bonifazio Graziani - Venite gentes
Bonifazio Graziani - Ad mensam dulcissimi
Bonifazio Graziani - Justus ut palma
I Fagiolini
The City Musick
Robert Hollingworth
Recorded St Augustine’s Church, Kilburn, London, 28 June – 1 July 2023
CORO COR16201 1CD [58.43]

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