Part of the power of the Miserere lies in its basic simplicity, which is one of the fundamental building blocks of spirituality. Indeed, legend has it that the Pope once decreed that it could only be performed at the Vatican, and only under conditions of special care due to its spiritual power. Legend continues that this monopoly was broken when Mozart (as a child) heard the piece and, from one hearing only, transcribed the music into print form and distributed it from there. Perhaps this is an embellishment, but it is a romantic story befitting the piece. The Miserere is based on Psalm 51 (Allegri's setting is but one of many), the great penitential psalm of the Lenten season. This sombre and searching spirituality permeates the music from start to finish. The high piercing notes recalling the piercing guilt and the pierced Christ cry over the mixture of voices that produce a most exquisite grumble of humanity in search of God.
--Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli-
Written at least a generation prior to Allegri's Miserere, Palestrina's Mass for Pope Marcellus II is likewise a composition in search of the absolute and absolving God. Reacting to an overly ornate liturgy of the Roman Catholic church in the face of popular and growing Reformation types, Palestrina became a great champion for music that preserved both the grandeur of the liturgy as well as the accessibility of the message and language for the people. The lower vocals make the Mass a part of the people, rather than existing on high, inaccessible.
--William Mundy's Vox Patris caelestis-
Mundy's work is roughly contemporary with that of Palestrina (mid to late 1500s). The Vox Patris caelestis (the voice of the heavenly Father) is a decidedly Catholic English composition, which places it during the reign of Mary. Mundy was in many ways opposite from Palestrina - clarity of words and simplicity of music were secondary concerns, if concerns at all.
All of these pieces are glorious polyphonic compositions of extraordinary power and grace. Taken as a set, they make a wonderful snapshot of Roman Catholic/high Anglican sensibility from the time of religious upheaval due to the Reformation.
--The Tallis Scholars-
The Tallis Scholars are a group dedicated to the performance and preservation of the best of this type of music. A choral group of exceptional ability, I have been privileged to see them many times in public, and at almost every performance, the Miserere by Allegri is expected and delivered with near-flawless grace. Directed by Peter Phillips, the group consists of a small number of male and female singers who have trained themselves well to their task.
This recording deserves more than five stars; it deserves a place on the shelf of anyone who loves choral music, liturgical music or Gregorian chant, classical music generally, or religious music. When listening, fair warning: prepare to be moved.