Classical Music Review: New Releases

Giovanni Pierluigi Palestrina - Missa de Beata Virgine (1567). Soloists of Cappella Musicale di San Petronio di Bologna; Sergio Vartolo, director, organ on Cavazzoni: Ave Maris Stella. Naxos 8.553313. 55'24'".

If you followed this year's fixed (in more ways than one) U.S. presidential election you'd have to conclude that politics can be just as much about exclusion as inclusion. No one can escape it, not even composers, and Palestrina (1525/6-1594) is certainly a special case. He lived at the time of the Reformation when Martin Luther translated the Bible into German, and Henry VIII founded the Church of England and ordered its Book of Common Prayer to be in the language of his subjects.  Palestrina also lived through the Counter-Reformation in which the Roman Church adopted a hard line to keep the faithful in tow. And one of the ways they did this was by having the Church texts purifiied (certain things were expunged) and standardized, and ordering composers to adhere to the ancient style of ecclesiastical music which had Greek roots. The First Council of Trent convened in 1545 to do just that; it also stipulated that the words in works composed for Church use should be set as clearly as possible so that the faithful would have no trouble understanding them and the doctrines they expressed, and those who weren't saved could be excluded definitively by the Inquisition.

Palestrina wrote his two Missa de Beata Virgine, which were published in the Missarum liber secundas, and tertius in 1567 and 1570, and dedicated them to Spain's Philip II -- his country having fought in the Papal wars -- and you might say that the first Missa, recorded here, has an almost Iberian concentration and intensity of expression (Victoria was musically and personally involved with the Italian composer). Palestrina builds this four voice Mass on the plainchant melody on Gregorian modes I, VII, V, and it's sung here in the requisite free rhythm by an uncredited singer. The tune colors Palestrina's phrase structure, and his overlapping lines convey an almost architectural grandeur, which may reflect his acoustic experiences in the big church spaces of St. John Lateran, S. Maria Maggiore, and the smaller though no less impressive ones of St.Peters' Giulia and Sistina Chapels -- particularly in the resplendent "Gloria" and "Credo" with their almost total avoidance of full cadences. Certainly the expanded time sense of Palestrina's setting -- the five words in the first line of "Alleluia" last a minute -- put one in mind of the eternal. And the purity of the composer's musical language --refined yet wholly expressive -- shines through in this recording by Sergio Vartolo and his seven finely balanced and thoroughly blended male soloists (Naxos has three other Palestrina CDs in this Early Music series). The composer observed politics here by using a Church-certifed (those Florida votes again) melody yet managed to come up with a polyphonic treatment consonant with those effected by his contemporary Lassus, and his predecessor Josquin.  Palestrina's solution sounds entirely personal, like the wide-open view of the Roman plain of Lazio (ancient Latium) from the composer's hometown. Full texts and commentary are enclosed, with the German and (especially) French ones outclassing the English.

-Michael McDonagh
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