Palestrina: Vol. 1

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COMPOSERS: Palestrina
WORKS: Vol. 1: Missa Assumpta est Maria; Salve Regina; Ave Maria; Song of Songs Nos 9-11
PERFORMER: The Sixteen/Harry Christophers

This CD is labelled ‘Palestrina Volume 1’ and has the aim of ‘presenting each volume based around a single mass and themes relevant to that mass’. This cannot mean that all 104 masses will be recorded; rather we will probably get a selection of the most interesting works. And inevitably many of them will already have been recorded elsewhere as is the case here (eg Gimell/Tallis Scholars, 1996; EMI/Clare College Cambridge, 1997; Regis/Pro Cantione Antiqua, 2000). This doesn’t matter because the approach of Harry Christophers is distinctive and revelatory, and he has surrounded the mass by a well-chosen array of motets in praise of the Virgin Mary and her (theologically) voluptuous attractions.
The novelty of the approach is evident from the first track. In Salve Regina no two phrases are shaped in the same way, dynamic contrast is used frequently, speed changes are freely employed to match the changing text content, and there is no cloying unctuousness. The whole effect is quasi-theatrical without being melodramatic. The Mass also has its virtues from the vigour of the Kyrie (where the brightness is maintained despite being transposed downwards), to the delicate duetting of the Osanna.
The recording retains the spaciousness of the largish choir, though occasionally the  bombastic vitality is overdone (Ave Regina Caelorum is supposed to be a respectful salutation to the Queen of Heaven, not the Latin equivalent of ‘wotcha, Mary!’). Even so, the imaginative variety of these performances bodes well for the future volumes in this series. Anthony Pryer