Allegri's Miserere is given the top billing on this disc, perhaps because of some celebrated special effects, explained in the liner notes, that it contains. The first track is devoted to a sombre and beautiful Crucifixus (from the Nicene Creed) by one Lotti, an older contemporary of Bach. Admirable and compelling, both of these, but what I bought this disc for was the two items by Palestrina, his Stabat Mater and the celestial Missa Papae Marcelli.
It is not just the quality of the early music specialists these days but the sheer profusion of them that continues to astonish me. I looked through the list of singers (18, not 16) and while I did not recognise most of the names offhand that may simply be because I did not investigate my large record collection, and I certainly did spot the name of a certain Mark Padmore among the tenors. The top parts are taken by sopranos, not trebles, all the altos are male, and the four soloists in the Allegri are also members of the choir.
To me, the 16th century polyphonists are not some recondite category of music that I have come to know in a spirit of antiquarianism. My early education made me familiar with Palestrina, Victoria and others of the period before I knew Bach Beethoven and Brahms, and that surely has to be the right sequence simply because it is the chronological and historical sequence. I have no mental reconfiguring to do before I listen to Palestrina because I have long known, and indeed sung in, the two works here. If they need `selling' to anyone, the best I can do is to state baldly that these performances are magnificent and the music itself is sublime beyond sublimity. This performance of the Mass in particular even ousts my treasured account from Willcocks in being at least as well sung and benefiting from more modern recording. Everything here is `quality'. To compliment a choir on its infallible intonation is not like congratulating an author on his spelling, it is a higher sort of achievement and one that cannot be taken for granted even nowadays and even from the most distinguished performers. Here it is utterly beyond question, and I was overawed by the breath-control that these vocalists, to a man and a woman, exhibited in the long final notes of the various pieces. All this is at the service of a musical sense that is instinct with belief and commitment as well as being stylistically impeccable. Nothing is exaggerated, but I sense a fervour in this singing that would not be out of place in the most `expressive' later music. The recording is just about ideal too, clear without either dryness or excessive resonance, reproducing with fidelity the superb vocal tone.
Nothing Allegri can do matches the heavenly serenity of the Missa Papae Marcelli, but the performance, as you might expect, is to the same standard, and so is that of Lotti's very fine Crucifixus. Harry Christophers contributes a short preface, and the main liner note, by Ivan Moody, provides some informative background. It may be that a little comment of my own on the texts respectively of the Stabat Mater and the Miserere will be helpful, because these are not the brightest jewels of the production.
The text of the Stabat Mater that Palestrina used is not the one I am most familiar with, the text set by Verdi for one. Details of the divergences need not concern us now, but for the odd fact that in two instances the Sixteen sing the other version and not what you will find printed here. I shall point these out at the places where they occur, in the course of correcting misprints in the Latin
. `Contristantem': read `contristatam'
. `Per tansivit': read `pertransivit'
. `Quis Christi': delete `Quis'
. `Me sentire vim doloris,': the comma should either be removed or come after `fac' in the next line
. `Fac me vere tecum flere': the other version `Fac me tecum pie flere' meaning `Make me weep devoutly with you' is what is sung
. `con dolore': read `condolere'
. `Ob amorem Filii': the other version `Et cruore Filii' meaning `And with the blood of your Son' is what is sung
. `custodire': read `custodiri'
There are a few misprints in the Latin of the Miserere as well, and more seriously there is a fair little sprinkling of mistranslations in the English. I shall mention only the outright errors and not those cases where the translation allows itself some latitude
. `miserationem': read `miserationum'
. `Ecce enim...manifestasti mihi': the translation is completely wrong. Read `For lo, thou hast loved truth: thou hast revealed to me those things in thy wisdom that are uncertain and hidden.'
. `mudabor': read `mundabor'
. `the bones which thou hast broken': read `my bones that were cast down'
. `invisceribus': read `in visceribus'
. `proiecias': read `proicias'
. `free spirit': read `lordly spirit'
. `sanquinibus': read `sanguinibus'
. `dedessem': read `dedissem'
. `build thou the walls of Jerusalem': read `so that the walls of Jerusalem may be built'
. `imponenet': read `imponent'
It is worth understanding what we are listening to, especially when what we are listening to is as transcendentally good as we find it here.