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Hyperion Records

CDA67396 - Palestrina: Music for Advent and Christmas
Nativity (1527) by Lorenzo Lotto (c1480-1556)
Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: February 2003
Westminster Cathedral, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Julian Millard
Release date: September 2003
Total duration: 78 minutes 13 seconds

'This is a thrilling recording of Palestrina's music for the Christmas season' (The Guardian)

'All the familiar qualities that serve to make Westminster unique among Britain's cathedral choirs are in evidence here … the crucial added ingredient is singing of a passion and conviction that reminds us that this music is the choir's lifeblood. This is unquestionably one of the glories of the year' (Goldberg)

Music for Advent and Christmas
Kyrie  [3'15] GreekEnglish
Gloria  [5'01] LatinEnglish
Credo  [7'14] LatinEnglish

Martin Baker’s recordings of Palestrina with Westminster Cathedral Choir have been highly praised across the world, our favourite quote being ‘Palestrina’s mellifluous counterpoint resonates like whipped cream in the cathedral acoustics ... delicious’ (The Scotsman). Here is a further sumptuous recording of Palestrina, this time dedicated to Christmas, the main work being the stunning Missa Hodie Christus natus est—one of Palestrina’s most popular works.

What better way to encapsulate the spirit of Christmas than with works of such devotional beauty, all sung with Westminster Cathedral Choir’s customary finesse and atmospheric reverence.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina is thought to have been born in 1525 in the town of that name in the Sabine hills near Rome, and he died in Rome on 2 February 1594. His first musical training seems to have been in Rome at S Maria Maggiore, where he was listed as a choirboy in October 1537. In October 1544 he was appointed organist at the Cathedral of S Agapito in Palestrina, where he remained until his appointment in 1551 as Maestro of the Cappella Giulia at St Peter’s in Rome. In 1554 Palestrina published his first book of Masses, dedicated to Pope Julius III. In January 1555 he was admitted to the Cappella Sistina, the Pope’s official chapel, on the orders of the Pope, without examination and despite being married. Three months later Julius III died and was succeeded by Marcellus II, who in turn died within about three weeks. The next Pope, Paul IV, insisted on full compliance with the chapel’s rule on the celibacy of its members and Palestrina, who had married in 1547 during his stay at Palestrina, and two others were dismissed from the choir in September 1555. In the following month Palestrina was appointed Maestro di cappella at St John Lateran where he stayed until he left in 1560 following a dispute with the chapter over the financing of the musicians. His next known employment was again at S Maria Maggiore in 1564, where he passed the next five years combining this post with work for Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este. The latter work he continued on a more or less full-time basis until 1571, during which time he also taught music at the Seminario Romano. In April 1571 he took up his last appointment, returning to the post of Maestro of the Cappella Giulia, where he remained until his death.

This recording is devoted to a selection of Palestrina’s music for Advent and Christmas. The church year is divided into four liturgical periods. The first, including Advent, Christmas and the post-Christmas time up to Septuagesima, centres on the Nativity of Christ; the second, Septuagesima Time (which begins with Septuagesima Sunday, the ninth before Easter, and includes Lent) leads up to Easter; the third, Paschal Time, extends from Easter to Pentecost (Whitsun); and the fourth, beginning on Trinity Sunday, comprises the rest of the year. Advent thus stands at the beginning of the church year and is a period of preparation for the coming (in Latin, adventus) of Christ and leading up to the celebration of his birth on Christmas Day. Like Christmas, it has a rich liturgy and Palestrina provided much music for both seasons.

Alma redemptoris mater is a text of considerable antiquity and appears in several thirteenth-century motets. In the Roman liturgy it is an antiphon to the Blessed Virgin Mary, which is sung during Advent and until the Feast of the Purification. Palestrina made three settings of this text, a paribus vocibus setting for four high voices, which was included in his second book of four-part motets published in Venice in 1596, and two eight-part settings, which were not issued in printed editions in Palestrina’s lifetime. These were later transcribed by Haberl in the nineteenth century from manuscripts then in the archives of the Cappella Giulia and of the Collegium Romanum. The version sung here is the Cappella Giulia setting, which is written in a fuller and more polyphonic style than the other and, with its constantly changing textures and rich sonorities, achieves a great sense of strength and spaciousness.

Canite tuba is a motet for the fourth Sunday of Advent. The first part of this five-voice motet draws its text from the first and third antiphons at Vespers; and the second part, ‘Rorate caeli desuper’, takes its text from the Introit at Mass on the fourth Sunday of Advent, combined with text from the First Responsory of the Ordinary of Advent and its first verse. The motet was first published in Venice in 1572 in Palestrina’s second book of motets for five, six and eight voices. As befits its opening words, ‘Sound the trumpet in Sion, for the day of the Lord is nigh’, the motet begins strongly in an extrovert manner, turning to a more reflective and polyphonic style at the words ‘come, O Lord, and be not tardy’, and ending the first part with an expressive outpouring of joyous Alleluias. The second half begins more quietly with a reduced voice section, but soon reverts to vigorous five-part writing which comes to a dramatic pause at a section headed ‘Show us thy mercy, O Lord, and grant us thy salvation’. This is followed by a more polyphonic section, expressing beautifully the pleading tone of the words ‘come, O Lord, and be not tardy’, which uses and elaborates on material from the similar section in the first part. The motet concludes with another joyful burst of Alleluias, the musical material from the end of the first part being slightly reworked.

Deus tu conversus is the Offertory at Mass on the Second Sunday of Advent. This five-voice setting comes from a cycle of Offertories published in Rome in two volumes late in Palestrina’s life by Francis Coates, in 1593, which contain some fine music in a polished and mature style exhibiting much rhythmic vivacity and unusual harmonic richness. The motet opens with a stately invocation, ‘Turn unto us, O God’, and quickly moves to cascades of running semiquavers at the words ‘and quicken us’. The next section uses dotted figures and vigorous rhythms to convey the sense of ‘and thy people shall rejoice’, but this is soon cut short by the opening of a slow-moving homophonic penitential passage (very similar to that in Canite tuba) at the words ‘Show us thy mercy, O Lord’, which nonetheless comes to a strong finish at the words ‘and grant us thy salvation’. After a half-bar pause the whole of this final section is repeated and concludes the motet on a buoyant note.

Hodie Christus natus est is a double choir (SSAB+ATTB) motet that comes from Palestrina’s third volume of motets published in Venice in 1575. The motet is based on the text of the Magnificat antiphon at Second Vespers on Christmas Day, interspersed with the traditional Christmas cries of ‘noe, noe’. This is a wonderful piece of writing which brilliantly exploits the possibilities of effective contrast: by using the differing sonorities of a high choir and a low choir; by setting off slow-moving passages expressing the solemnity of the celebration of Christ’s birth against rapid antiphonal exchanges of joyful cries of ‘noe, noe’; by using running passages to reflect the singing of the angels and the rejoicing of the archangels and the just; and by reserving until the concluding section of the motet the use of triple time for the final joyful exchanges of ‘noe’.

Palestrina’s double-choir Missa Hodie Christus natus est is a parody Mass closely based on the motet just described. It uses all the techniques noted above which give the motet such a brilliant and striking character and, while the precise use made of the musical material of the motet varies from one movement to another, the Mass bears the imprint of the motet in all its movements. The Kyrie opens with an exact quotation (with the soprano lines exchanging parts) of the opening bars of the motet, and much of the opening ‘noe, noe’ material is re-used in slightly adapted form. In other places the material from the motet, often recognizable from its harmonic sequence, is used more loosely and is more considerably adapted and combined with other new material; but in others it is used with much less alteration. For example, all movements of the Mass apart from the Agnus Dei end with a use in the final section, with only minor amendments, of the almost boisterous triple-time last section of the motet. The result is an impressive Mass which exhibits all the excitement, clarity and sparkle of its model together with a certain sense of breadth and grandeur.

O magnum mysterium is a motet for the Nativity of Our Lord, which takes its text from the first half of the fourth and third Responsories at Matins on Christmas Day. It was included in a collection of motets, for five, six and seven voices, published in Rome in 1569. This exquisite six-part motet conveys superbly the awe and joy of the shepherds at the birth of Christ in a manger. Opening with a series of slow chords announcing the ‘great mystery and wonderful sacrament’, the music proceeds in a mainly homophonic idiom, with differing and well calculated combinations of voices, until it breaks into a lively triple time to represent the ‘chorus of angels praising God’, returning to duple time for a final section of pealing Alleluias; the second half has a similar structure and re-uses some of the material from the first half to very good effect.

Tui sunt caeli is the Offertory (also from the 1593 publication) from the Third Mass of Christmas. This five-part motet is written in a flowing fugal manner with periodic short homophonic interjections which contrast effectively with the prevailing polyphonic style and prepare the way for a satisfying end to the piece.

O admirabile commercium is a five-part motet for the Feast of the Circumcision (which falls on January 1st) and the Octave of the Nativity. It takes its text from the first antiphon at Second Vespers of that Feast. The motet comes from a collection entitled Florilegium sacrarum cantionum published by Phalèse in Antwerp in 1602. The still and poised music of its opening bars—‘O wonderful gift’—sets the tone for the rest of this beautiful and finely balanced motet which makes very good use of a high cantus part soaring slowly over the more busy music of the other parts in the final section.

Christe redemptor omnium is prescribed in the Antiphonale Monasticum as a hymn at First Vespers of the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord. It is one of a substantial collection of settings by Palestrina of hymns for seasonal use which was published in 1589 in Rome by Francisco Coattino. This six-part hymn is an alternatim composition—that is, alternate verses of the hymn are set to chant and polyphony, and the prominence of the plainsong in the composition is enhanced by the way that the melody of the chant, or fragments of it, are present in slow notes much of the time in one or other of the voices. This a wonderfully rich composition which uses a great variety of musical techniques to illuminate the meaning of the words, one example of which is the lively triple-time section at the words ‘praising and raising songs of exultation’.

The Magnificat primi toni is a composition which comes from Palestrina’s third volume of Magnificats. It is, like most of his Magnificats, written in the alternatim style, but, unlike many of them, it employs up to six voices. Its style is mainly polyphonic and fugal and has a rich texture, but variety is obtained by using different combinations of high and low voices and in places a lighter texture. The Magnificat is preceded and followed by its plainsong antiphon ‘Hodie Christus natus est’, on which, as explained above, the double-choir motet and the Mass are based.

Jon Dixon © 2003

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