We have decided to don the sackcloth and ashes and search out the best recordings of Allegri’s haunting setting of Psalm 51.
The title ‘Allegri’s Miserere’ only tells half the story. While Gregorio Allegri did indeed write his setting of the penitential Psalm 51 for Rome’s Sistine Chapel in the 1630s, the ‘standard’ version we are familiar with is probably some way removed from the composer’s original thoughts.
Allegri’s own music was relatively simple, alternating sections by a five-voice main choir and a four-voice solo choir, the latter of whom would then add skilfully improvised ornaments (‘abbellimenti’) – the fearsome high C faced by the treble or soprano soloist today probably emerged as a result of such improvisation over the years.
Proud of its choral jewel, the Papacy forbade publication and performance of the Miserere outside the Vatican, hence the 14-year-old Mozart needing to rely on his own ears to make a copy of the score after just one hearing in 1770.
The feat is not quite as impressive as it seems as, over its 12 or so minutes, the Miserere essentially repeats the same music five times over, its sections divided by passages of plainchant.
1. Alison Stamp (soprano); The Tallis Scholars/Peter Phillips
With any recording of Allegri’s Miserere, the listener’s attention is inevitably drawn to, above all, how well the soloist tackles those top Cs. It’s not so much reaching the note itself that is so difficult but keeping what lies either side under control – swooping up to the C and/or then smudging the tricky quaver ornament on the way down are both hard to avoid.
Treble Roy Goodman set the early benchmark with the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge in 1964, since when recordings have emerged with regularity from boys’ and adult choirs in roughly equal measure. No fewer than four of these come from the Tallis Scholars.
While their live performance in Rome in 1994 is scintillating, it’s the Scholars’ 1980 recording in the chapel of Merton College, Oxford that impresses most. Their pure-voiced soprano Alison Stamp soars sublimely and expressively (not easy at that pitch) above a solo quartet that is placed some distance from the microphones, giving that all-important degree of separation from the main choir – something a number of recordings surprisingly lack.
The balance of voices throughout is impeccable, while overall pacing is also deftly managed by conductor Peter Phillips – always appropriately self-reflective, but never lingeringly self-indulgent. Above all, it is a recording that is packed with atmosphere.
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Gimell GIMSE 401 (1980)
2. Jeremy Budd (treble); The Choir of St Paul’s Cathedral/John Scott
The Miserere has been well served on disc by Britain’s cathedral choirs. Truro (2003; Lammas Records), for instance, has a superb treble soloist in Joshua Brooksbank; nor would I want to be without Westminster Abbey’s 1986 recording under Simon Preston (Archiv). But neither can boast the extraordinary acoustic of St Paul’s.
Notice just how long the echo rings around the dome at the end of each section before conductor John Scott even dares to move things along – no wonder this comes in at around a minute longer than most other recordings.
Yes, roomy acoustics are famously forgiving, but the choir’s large numbers are impressively disciplined in terms of balance and control, while treble Jeremy Budd’s impeccable intonation and diction is matched by that of his fellow soloists.
Hyperion CDA 66439 (1990)
3. Grace Davidson (soprano); Tenebrae/Nigel Short
Among adult choirs, a superbly agile Miserere was released by the Cardinall’s Musick in 2011, though their use of the more ornate tonus peregrinus plainchant may not suit all tastes, while a nicely balanced 1995 performance by the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge (Brilliant Classics) is let down only by an unflatteringly dry acoustic.
That’s an accusation that can’t be levelled at Tenebrae’s 2006 sumptuously recorded version on Signum.
Nigel Short’s 26-voice choir may contain some individual star names, but they blend excellently as a group – the result is a gutsy, but never coarse, choral sound, complemented by first-rate soloists headed by soprano Grace Davidson. As part of a similarly beautifully sung and deftly chosen programme, it’s a must-have.
Signum SIGCD 085 (2006)
4. Roy Goodman (treble); The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge/David Willcocks
Nearly 50 years, but only a couple of hundred yards of river, separate the two recordings vying for the final place in my library. So… the Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge’s inspiring Chandos disc from last year – broad-paced, contemplative and captured in glorious sound – or the famous 1964 King’s version on Decca?
Despite the slightly cloudy recorded sound and occasional smudged choral entries, the latter just wins the day, not least because its age gives it a certain sense of occasion. Welcome, too, is the fact that the Miserere is sung here in English – why have so few choirs been tempted to follow suit?
And then there’s Roy Goodman. With an ease and control at the top of the range that copes even with conductor David Willcocks’s decidedly deliberate tempos, Goodman’s is a treble voice that still inspires today.
Decca 466 3732 (1964)
This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue of BBC Music Magazine
Illlustration: Steve Rawlings/Debutart