WORKS: Missa L’homme armé
PERFORMER: Soloists of the Cappella Musicale di San Petronio di Bologna/Sergio Vartolo (organ)
CATALOGUE NO: 8.553315
The secular song ‘L’homme armé’ (dating from the Crusades) was a popular source for polyphonic composers from the middle of the 15th century until the beginning of the 17th century. Palestrina wrote his five-part Mass with this cantus firmus in 1570, producing a second setting for four voices 12 years later.
For some time, the only available recording of Palestrina’s Missa L’homme armé has been Mark Brown’s 1992 a cappella version with Pro Cantione Antiqua. Interleaving its movements with atmospherically intoned plainsong appropriate to Epiphany, these musicians present the Kyrie, Sanctus and Agnus Dei with warmth and subtlety. Meanwhile, the velvety voices of Brown’s choir give the Gloria an air of reflective composure and enhance the Credo’s vividly textured account of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.
In the hands of Sergio Vartolo and the soloists of Bologna’s Cappella Musicale di San Petronio, this Mass – with organ ricercari by Palestrina’s contemporary Girolamo Cavazzoni as interludes – is a completely different work. Vartolo’s idiosyncratic phrasing and the Cappella Musicale’s robust vocal style sounds startling beside their rival’s more restrained approach. And, despite the lively rhythmic foreground, I remain unconvinced about the textual clarity of this performance.
However, Italianate flamboyance and a richer timbral character – with brighter voices and organ accompaniment – give Vartolo’s interpretation a keen edge that supports his association of this repertoire with the later madrigal style. The cantus firmus resonates effectively throughout the polyphony, while the singers produce a satisfying tonal fullness in the chordal passages and sing the triple-metre sections with pleasing vitality. Nicholas Rast