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Palestrina: Musica Sacra, Vol.2 CD, Classica
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Following the success of the first volume in their Palestrina series which won the International Classical Music Award for Early Music, Harry Christophers and The Sixteen release the second recording in the series which has a Christmas theme. Palestrina was born in 1525 not far from Rome, in the town whose name he bore and from which we take the cover images for this series of discs. Possibly the greatest composer of liturgical music of all time, Palestrina was a towering figure in Renaissance polyphony. Choral singers world-wide will know his Missa Papae Marcelli (recorded by The Sixteen on COR16014) as, without doubt, it is the most renowned of Palestrinas works and possibly the most famous mass of all time. Each volume in this series is based around a single mass and theme relevant to that mass, in this case the Nativity and the festive Motet and Mass Hodie Christus Natus Est. The mass features alongside some of his settings of the Song of Songs as well as the Magnificat Quinti toni and Motet O magnum mysterium.
The Sixteen let the music speak for itself. --Gramophone, Christmas '12
Beautifully sung- as we would expect from one of Britain's most accomplished and consistently impressive choirs and presented with the perfect mix of academic rigour and communicative zeal which elevates every one of the recordings into a true art in its own right. --IRR, Dec'12
The Sixteen are at their best in jubliant passages of celebration such as those in the motet Hodie Christus where there is exhultation at Christ's birth.In the Osanna we find something beyond mere noisy joyfulness; the bright, fluid soprano voices construct crystal clear patterns which can then be deftly followed by the rest of the choir. Performance **** Recording *** --BBC Music Magazine, Feb'13
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Early in his career, Palestrina studied with German composers then living in Italy and learned their contrapuntal techniques. As a result, he became the first Italian composer to wed northern European counterpoint with Italian cantabile style, which was later widely imitated by other composers, both Italian and non-Italian. The use of counterpoint is most telling in his many motets, including the examples on this CD.
The Sixteen, under the direction of Harry Christophers, have recorded two CD's of Palestrina's music. The second CD, discussed here, features music of the Christmas season. The principle recorded work is a Palestrina mass: "Hodie Christus Natus est" (Today Christ is born). A short motet of the same name is the first selection on the CD and contains some of the mass music in embryo form; it was apparently a study piece for the later mass. There are also other motets, antiphons (where a chanted verse is answered by one with a choral setting), and three gorgeous settings of verses from the biblical "Song of Songs," attributed to King Solomon but actually written centuries later. The CD ends with the motet "O Magnum Mysterium," one of Palestrina's greatest musical settings and every bit as splendid as Victoria's more familiar one from the same period.
All of this music is quite beautiful, and the Sixteen (actually consisting of 19 choristers in this recording) do it justice. Palestrina often calls for five-, or even six-part harmony in his works, and the singers are capable of doing divided parts perfectly when called for. Their voices blend together very well, with no harshness, yet each line of the often contrapuntal music is clearly heard. The February 2012 recording was made at the Church of St. Alban the Martyr in London, and the acoustics are excellent, with enough resonance to enliven the music but without muddying the sound. The accompanying pamphlet gives detailed information about the musical selections, the chorus, and the conductor along with the complete texts and translations of the selections.
One can listen to this glorious music on two levels, either focusing on the musical complexity of Palestrina's impressive compositional technique or just absorbing the mood of these fine sacred works without listening intently. Either way, this is a top-notch recording of some great a cappella choral settings by one of the greatest composers of sacred music. Highly recommended!