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Hyperion Records

CDH55407 - Palestrina: Missa Ecce ego Johannes & other sacred music
St John the Evangelist (from the St Thomas altarpiece) by Pedro Burruguete (c1450-1504)
Convent of St Thomas, Avila / Bridgeman Art Library, London
CDH55407
(Originally issued on CDA67099)

Recording details: February 1999
Westminster Cathedral, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Antony Howell & Julian Millard
Release date: March 2012
DISCID: BC0F410D
Total duration: 63 minutes 38 seconds

GRAMOPHONE EDITOR'S CHOICE
GRAMOPHONE CRITICS' CHOICE

'For sheer beauty of sound this recording is unsurpassed' (Gramophone)

'Missa Ecce ego Johannes bristles with enough energy to power the National Grid and the breathtaking authority, drive and power few other groups can emulate brings them thrillingly close to religious ecstasy' (Choir & Organ)

'Joyous performances' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Even among the Westminster Cathedral Choir's superb records this disc stands out. Perfect chording and ensemble, natural and musical phrasing, spot-on intonation and a glorious tonal blend, make this issue one to treasure' (The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs)

'Under James O'Donnell, Westminster Cathedral Choir has developed into what many regard as the nation's finest church choir. This release justifies that reputation. Palestrina's music emerges as more than the stuff of academic legend. There's a vibrancy in the opening Laudate pueri, while Peccantem me quotidie and Tribulationes civitatum both touch deep emotions, and the Mass Ecce ego Johannes radiates noble majesty. We are reminded that Palestrina was a highly individual composer, and every bit as Italian as, say, Monteverdi' (The Sunday Times)

'The listener can rejoice in the sumptuousness of the Westminster Cathedral sound with none of the anxiety over niggling imperfections that one suffers when hearing almost any other ensemble. The combination of accuracy with mastery of style is unrivalled' (Gramophone Early Music)

'Yet another superb disc from Westminster Cathedral … many consider not only the finest cathedral choir in Britain, but one of the best in the world. The sound is quite glorious' (Goldberg)

'This work could not be better sung than, as here, by the choir of Westminster Cathedral' (Contemporary Review)

Missa Ecce ego Johannes & other sacred music
Kyrie  [4'47] GreekEnglish
Gloria  [4'49] LatinEnglish
Credo  [7'37] LatinEnglish

Still thought of today as the grand master of the polyphonic style, Palestrina was highly regarded and much published in his lifetime. His output comprises one hundred and four firmly attributed Masses, over three hundred and seventy-five motets, sixty-eight offertories, at least sixty-five hymns, thirty-five Magnificats, four (possibly five) sets of Lamentations, and over a hundred and forty madrigals.

The six-voice Missa Ecce ego Johannes presented here is based on an unknown model. The text 'Ecce ego Johannes', from the Book of Revelation, is used for the chapter (capitulum) at Vespers on All Saints' Day, and it appears elsewhere (in the Sarum books, for example) as an antiphon at Matins for the same feast. The character of Palestrina's setting, however, suggests that it might well have been based on a polyphonic model. It is a powerful, confident work on a par with the Missa Papae Marcelli and Assumpta est Maria—just listen to the very first notes of the Kyrie.

The motets that accompany the Mass show a more festive side to Palestrina, with exuberant melismatic writing.

All of these pieces deserve to be better known and there can be no choir better equipped to show the world the beauty of this music.


Other recommended albums
'Lassus: Missa Bell' Amfitrit' altera' (CDA66688)
Lassus: Missa Bell' Amfitrit' altera
Buy by post £13.99 (ARCHIVE SERVICE) CDA66688  Archive Service  
'Palestrina: Lamentations' (CDA67610)
Palestrina: Lamentations
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67610 
'Palestrina: Missa Papae Marcelli & Missa brevis' (CDA66266)
Palestrina: Missa Papae Marcelli & Missa brevis
Buy by post £10.50 CDA66266 
'Victoria: Ave maris stella & O quam gloriosum' (CDA66114)
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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (his name derives from a town not far from Rome) was probably born in 1525 or 1526. After seven years as maestro di cappella at the cathedral of his native town, he went to Rome at the summons of Pope Julius III to become chapelmaster of the Cappella Giulia at St Peter’s. He later became a singer at the Sistine Chapel but was dismissed by Paul IV on account of his unacceptable married status. After other appointments, Palestrina returned to the Julian Chapel in 1571 as chapelmaster. He died in 1594.

Still thought of today as the grand master of the polyphonic style, Palestrina was highly regarded and much published in his lifetime. His output comprises one hundred and four firmly attributed Masses, over three hundred and seventy-five motets, sixty-eight offertories, at least sixty-five hymns, thirty-five Magnificats, four (possibly five) sets of Lamentations, and over a hundred and forty madrigals. His publications bear dedications to men of great power: discerning and wealthy patrons of the arts such as Guglielmo Gonzaga, foreign princes and potentates (there are two books of Masses inscribed to Philip II of Spain) and, increasingly in his later years, popes.

The six-voice Missa Ecce ego Johannes is based on an unknown model. The text ‘Ecce ego Johannes’, from the Book of Revelation, is used for the chapter (capitulum) at Vespers on All Saints’ Day, and it appears elsewhere (in the Sarum books, for example) as an antiphon at Matins for the same feast. The character of Palestrina’s setting, however, suggests that it might well have been based on a polyphonic model. It is a powerful, confident work, something evident from the very first notes of the Kyrie. As with the Missa Papae Marcelli, it is a model of Palestrinian word-setting. There is a constant, subtle use of homophonic writing throughout which gives it tremendous rhetorical power. A good example is the reflective chordal opening of the second Kyrie, which not only contrasts with the more flowing, transparent textures of the Christe before it, but gives rise to imitative writing, out of which arises the climactic second phrase of the cantus, soaring up the octave.

The Gloria and Credo are customarily characterized by more declamatory writing on account of the length of their texts. In this case, so interwoven is the use of homophony and imitation in the various subdivisions of the choral ensemble that it is hard to say where one ends and the other begins. Thus it is that the exultant ascending scales at ‘rex caelestis’ in the Gloria arise completely naturally out of the more static chordal writing preceding them, and the same is true of the contrapuntal writing following the block chordal ‘Domine Deus’. There is a marvellous flowering, using a descending scalic motif, at the final phrase of the Gloria, like an illuminated initial placed at the end of a text rather than at the beginning. Such scalic figures also appear in order to decorate the otherwise straightforward cadences at ‘et incarnatus est’ and ‘et homo factus est’ in the Credo, and the reduced-scoring ‘Crucifixus’ develops them further. The triple-time of the ‘Et in Spiritum Sanctum’ is a real surprise after such delicate tracery, though this lasts only until ‘Et unam sanctam’.

The Sanctus is powerful and majestic; again descending and ascending scalic figures feature prominently, and they give a special colour to this section when doubled in thirds, sixths or tenths, as at ‘et terra’, or at several places in the substantial Benedictus. Less effusive melodically, the Agnus Dei is triumphant and thrilling. The opening of the second recalls the beginning of the second Kyrie.

Tribulationes civitatum and Peccantem me quotidie are both penitential motets. The former appeared in the 1584 Motectorum liber quintus, published in Rome, the latter in Motettorum liber secundus, published twelve years earlier in Venice. Both make use of soaring melodic phrases and quite abrupt harmonic and textural contrasts: the block chords at ‘Timor’ in Tribulationes civitatum, for example, which clearly make the word stand out, or the subsequent harmonic change at ‘et super liberos’. At the end of the first part there is a real sense of imploring for mercy at the words ‘Domine miserere’, characterized by a descending motif. In the second part such procedures are continued; most remarkable of all is the sudden harmonic stasis caused by the use of pedal notes at ‘iniuste egimus’; this is followed by two sequential descents onto bare fifths at ‘iniquitatem fecimus’. Peccantem me quotidie is even more haunted by the need for repentance and the fear of death: the words ‘timor mortis conturbat me’ (so chillingly reiterated by the fifteenth-century Scottish poet William Dunbar in his Lament for the Makers) are set in simple block chords, but move symbolically into new harmonic territory. There is an audible darkening, so to speak, with the despairing descending phrases of ‘nulla est redemptio’, but with the startling plea for mercy at ‘Miserere mei, Deus’, the end of the work is bathed in the light of hope: these two motets seem to incarnate the dictum of the Orthodox monk Staretz Silouan, who said ‘Keep thy mind in hell, and despair not’. If it is still today unfashionable to read such spiritual concerns into this music, it should not be forgotten that Palestrina was working at the very centre of the development of Counter-Reformation spirituality: as Lewis Lockwood has written: ‘His career exhibits not only enormous artistic power and fecundity, exercised with great restraint, but also a strong religious feeling coupled with a sense of worldly purpose’ (‘Palestrina’, in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians).

Laudate pueri, from the 1572 collection of motets, and Cantantibus organis, published in 1575, show the festive side of Palestrina, with exuberant melismatic writing and, especially in the former, for two choirs, a dextrous handling of textural contrast. The seven-voice Tu es Petrus, from the 1569 Liber primus motettorum, and less familiar than the later six-voice setting, is also a joyous celebration of confident faith in the church of Peter. Its seamless polyphonic flow, though not its harmonic language, suggests composers such as Morales and, especially, Gombert. The Magnificat recorded here is one of five which Palestrina wrote in Tone 4. He set the text of the Magnificat, in fact, no fewer than thirty-five times; sixteen of them appeared in the Magnificat octo tonum liber primus published in Rome in 1591. It is a pity indeed that they are nowadays somewhat little known, for they are quintessential Palestrina: the servant of the Church quietly writing magnificent music which speaks directly to mankind even—and perhaps especially—today.

Ivan Moody © 1999

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