Palestrina: Missa Assumpta est Maria; Mass and Motet on Veni sponsa Christi; Magnificat VI toni

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COMPOSERS: Palestrina
LABELS: Decca
WORKS: Missa Assumpta est Maria; Mass and Motet on Veni sponsa Christi; Magnificat VI toni
PERFORMER: Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge/George Guest
CATALOGUE NO: 433 678-2 ADD Reissue
Professional choirs have recently taken the initiative in recording Renaissance music. These CDs, mostly from the Sixties, employ boys’ voices, and allow us to reassess the period when King’s College, Cambridge, was regarded as the purveyor of the ‘English style’ and St John’s as that of the ‘continental’ style. The repertory they perform on these discs only goes to reinforce these stereotypes: King’s provides Gibbons, Tallis and Byrd; St John’s performs Palestrina and Victoria, while Christ Church, Oxford, takes the mid-ground with Lassus.

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Hearing these performances again, St John’s sounds as vigorous as I remembered, yet I found the men’s voices in the reduced sections forced in their vocal production, and the tempo changes romantically exaggerated. By contrast, King’s sounds insipid and turgid, demonstrating how much they have improved recently. Predictably, they sound more at home in Gibbons, the earliest recording. Christ Church appears far more assured and precise than either of the Cambridge choirs; though dynamics and tempi are rather exaggerated, vocal tone is far better controlled.

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It is good to hear these collegiate choirs, but the pleasure involves sacrificing what we now know about the use of lower voices and pitches, vocal ornamentation and regularity of pulse and dynamics, as well as improved recording methods. But such recordings constitute a tradition in their own right, and are therefore mostly worth reissuing. They will surely find a ready market. Graham Dixon