So much of Palestrina’s more widely known music is associated with Passiontide and Easter, so it is good to be reminded of the composer’s more unabashedly joyful side in this lovely collection of his music for Advent and Christmas. It is also felicitous to have it sung by a church choir and recorded in a cathedral setting, as this reminds us of the music’s liturgical focus. Lovely as it is to hear professional adults like The Sixteen sing Palestrina, Baker and his Westminster Cathedral choir remind us that Palestrina spent his life in the service of the Catholic church in Rome and that his music was written for its use. The resonant acoustic of Westminster Cathedral goes a long way towards evoking what this music must have sounded like when Palestrina first envisioned it, and the sound of the boys’ voices also help to add that air of authenticity.
Indeed, those boys’ voices make a big difference to this disc’s sound-world. There is a purity and clarity to the top that really rings in the cathedral acoustic and makes the whole sound seem to resonate all the brighter. Baker’s direction also tends to stress the liveliness of these motets, bringing to the forefront their joy in the contemplation of the Christmas story. The famous motet Hodie Christus natus est is a good place to start, with its bright, gleaming treble line and the vigorous lower lines that give the whole motet its forward momentum. To go straight from this into the mass that is drawn from it is a neat piece of programming and, more so than usually, the parallels between the motet and the mass are very apparent, not just in the opening Kyrie, but in the way that nearly all of the movements draw on the swinging triple-time Noëls that end the motet.
That sense of swing is apparent elsewhere, such as in the carolling Alleluias of Canite tuba or the ebullience of Deus tu conversus. There are also moments of serious contemplation, such as in the Magnificat and opening Alma Redemptoris Mater. Ensemble is watertight throughout, and the Hyperion engineers have done a very good job of capturing the live-ness of the acoustic without every succumbing to muddiness. In sum, this is a brightly focused, clear-as-day tour through Palestrina’s Christmas music that seems to evoke Mediterranean sun rather than northern European snow. Add in the Helios bargain price, and you have a good excuse to investigate.