The Europadisc Review
November 2019

The run-up to Christmas may seem an odd time to release a disc of music for Holy Week (the period of solemn liturgical observances immediately preceding Easter), but by any standards and at any time of year this latest album from the Vienna-based a cappella vocal group Cinquecento is absolutely stunning. Their critically acclaimed previous recordings for the Hyperion label have featured Masses by De Monte, Willaert, Richafort and Lassus, as well as several less well-known Renaissance composers. Now they tackle one of the pinnacles of sacred vocal art in the form of Palestrina’s second book of Lamentations: music of intense gravity and solemnity designed for performance on three of the holiest days of the church year—Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. The Old Testament Lamentations of Jeremiah are traditionally sung as part of the first Nocturn of the office of Matins on these three days (or, more accurately, on the evenings before), with the lights of the candelabra or ‘hearse’ being gradually extinguished so that the service ends in darkness (‘in tenebris’), hence the name often given to these services: Tenebrae.

Many composers have written music for the offices of Tenebrae, both the responsories that occur after each reading (Gesualdo, Charpentier, Victoria and Lassus among them) and the lessons (particularly the Lamentations; Tallis, Lassus, Charpentier and François Couperin). The concentrated spirituality of the texts and the occasion itself have inspired some of the most deeply moving and introspective music ever written, sacred or not. In the centuries after his death, and particularly since the nineteenth-century revival of interest in ‘early’ music, Palestrina’s settings of the Lamentations (of which four sets survive) have been held in particularly high regard, admired by such figures as Mendelssohn, Wagner and Debussy. This beautifully sung new account vividly illustrates just why Palestrina occupies such an exalted place in the creation of vocal music.

As was the custom in the Roman churches of Palestrina’s time, the five singers of Cinquecento sing with just one voice per part. Palestrina varies the scoring, typically four voices in the first two lessons of each Nocturn, occasionally pared down to just three, but expanded in the third lesson to five and even (in the very final lesson on Holy Saturday) six or eight. He follows tradition in ending each lesson with the closing plea ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum’ (Jerusalem, Jerusalem, turn to the Lord your God), and similarly sets the letters of the Hebrew alphabet (Aleph, Beth, Vau, Zain, etc.) to musical elaborations much like the illumination of capital letters in medieval manuscripts.

Hyperion have done a marvellous job of capturing the deep spirituality of this music in the acoustic of the former Carthusian monastery of Mauerbach near Vienna. The voices, including three ‘guest’ singers for the expanded textures of the final lesson on Holy Saturday, are exquisitely blended yet each line retains clarity, while the control of phrasing and finely nuanced dynamics are simply phenomenal. So often in smaller a cappella groups there is one voice that slightly ‘scars’ the textures—a hooty countertenor, perhaps, a throaty tenor, or a slightly woolly bass. Not so here, where each voice seems to form a natural part of the larger whole while retaining its own identity. In that respect, as in so many others, Cinquecento are ideal exponents of Palestrina, whose genius resides precisely in such finely balanced and nuanced textures.

The tracklisting is generous (73 tracks in total!), yet dip into this marvellous disc at any point and you will be treated to music of radiant beauty, exquisite pose and balance. The deep tessitura and open vowel sound of the letter ‘Jod’ at the outset of lesson 3 on Maundy Thursday, the expanded five-part texture of the final ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem’ from the same lesson; the lachrymose melodic falls of the letter ‘Lamed’ at the beginning of lesson 2 on Good Friday; the richness of the six- and eight-part textures of the final lesson on Holy Saturday: these are just a few of the many ear-catching moments on this superb recording. Wagner and Debussy recognised that Palestrina got as close to perfection in vocal music as any composer ever has, and surely Cinquecento now embody that perfection better than any other ensemble ever has. With concise but authoritative notes by no less a figure than Bruno Turner, plus full texts and translations, this is indeed as close to perfection as you’ll ever experience on a single disc: do try to hear it!

The Europadisc Review