PALESTRINA Vol. 2 = Hodie Christus natus est; Christie Redemptor omnium; Magnificat Quinti Toni; Tui sunt caeli; Reges Tharsis; Missa Hodie Christus natus est; Song of Songs, Nos. 1-3; O magnum mysterium – The Sixteen/ Harry Christophers – Coro COR16105, 67:34 [Distr. by Allegro] ****:
Palestrina defined music for an entire generation. From the small town of the same name, he composed music from an early age, seeking his fortune in a town—Rome–that was reaching the peak of power and fame. The young man saw the near completion of St. Peter’s Basilica, the largest church in Christendom. Though the musical activities of the church had been dominated by Spanish and Franco-Flemish composers, some Italians like Palestrina were beginning to make inroads.
The Council of Trent had an enormous influence on the liturgy of the time, and with its completion came the need for huge amounts of new music to accommodate the revised texts and new standards. Though part writing for four, five, and six voices was still to remain the norm, new double-choir pieces appeared with the idea of a more intelligent understanding of the texts. The idea of composers finding sponsors for the publications of their music took off, and a businessman like Palestrina—though hardly the most astute one—was able to publish 23 pieces not including reprints in the forty year period before his death.
By that time he held the most prestigious posts in the church and was widely regarded as the greatest composer of the age. Harry Christophers and The Sixteen have embarked on a new project to record many of the composer’s greatest works, and this second volume certainly lives up to any and many expectations music lovers have of this superb ensemble. Included here are the motet and mass Hodie Christus natus est, the latter published after his death, and an example of only four out of about 114 masses to employ antiphonal choirs. O magnum mysterium is another Advent/Christmas motet actually done for Nativity and Circumcision, the six part writing redolent of the composer’s best work, easily the equal of Victoria’s composition of the same name.
The other seasonal hymns and motets here are from the last years of his life, and good examples of the varied and complex nature of his art. The Song of Songs curiously is a non-liturgical work that nonetheless has been used liturgically. The 29 motets that make up the piece were done by Palestrina for private and devotional functions, intimate chamber vocal pieces for five voices that demonstrate great emotion within a confined economy of scale. Here with have the first three of the set.
The Sixteen are almost beyond criticism—few groups have attained their standards of tonal opulence, technical facility, and projection, and this is no different. This will definitely be a series to collect, and the resonant acoustics of St. Alban the Martyr do the engineers proud.