This recording will appeal to different people for one or more of a variety of reasons: as an anthology of music mainly by Palestrina, with the Missa Veni sponsa Christi at its heart, to those who have heard or own earlier recordings by the group Musica Secreta, as a sample of polyphonic music as it would have been performed by the most accomplished convent choirs of the day, or as a tie-in to Sarah Dunnant’s novel, Sacred Hearts .
I’m sorry to say that I haven’t read the novel, so, for my own part, the first two reasons are the most cogent. Musica Secreta have wisely chosen to perform a Palestrina Mass for which there is little competition: as far as I am aware, only St John’s College, Cambridge, Choir under George Guest, who also offer the motet Veni sponsa Christi , with the ubiquitous Allegri Miserere and Lassus’s Missa bell’Amfitrit’altera on Classics for Pleasure 5755602. There are better versions of the Allegri and Lassus, so the only advantage of the CFP recording would be the inclusion of the motet; I could happily have dispensed with some of the plainsong on the new recording in exchange for the motet, which forms the cantus firmus of the Mass, to be included.
I had previously encountered Musica Secreta on a recording of female composer Lucrezia Vizzana’s (1592-1662) Componimenti Musicali (1623) on Linn CKD071 – the kind of ‘secret music’ by female composers or for female choirs which the group were founded in 1990 to perform. I very much enjoyed that earlier recording and intend to include a review of it in my next Download Roundup. I also recommended their Dialogues with Heaven , the music of another female composer, Chiara Cozzolani (Linn CDK113) in my May, 2009, Download Roundup; I haven’t yet heard their third Linn recording, Dangerous Graces , music by de Rore and his contemporaries (Linn CKD169), but I intend to rectify that omission.
When Amon Ra reissued their 1994 recording of music by Barbara Strozzi, Gary Higginson described it as “All in all a fascinating release of music that is well worth studying and taking seriously”. More recently, they and the Celestial Sirens have recorded the music of Alessandro Grandi; Johan van Veen thought the singing technically excellent but a little bland and unimpassioned (Divine Art DDA25062 )
Music Secreta are also joined by the Celstial Sirens, another all-female group founded by Deborah Roberts in 2003, on the new recording.
The new CD opens with a short chant, Cantabant sancti canticum novum – the saints were singing a new song – a responsory for the feast of the Holy Innocents; here and on tracks 3 and 4, Beata Agnes in medio flammarum – Blessed Agnes, in the midst of the flames, prayed with outstretched arms – and Amo Christum , a text adapting the language of the Song of Songs to the love of Christ, where a somewhat cool manner of singing is, of course, not inappropriate. Between these, on track 2, we are offered Palestrina’s setting of Surge Illuminare , words familiar in English guise from Handel’s Messiah as “Arise, shine, for thy light is come”. Here I did feel some sympathy with JV’s comment on the Grandi recording; for all the beauty of the singing, I could have wished for slightly more affective engagement with the words and the potential emotion of Palestrina’s setting.
On track 5 the Celestial Sirens sing the Hymn Agnes, beatæ virginis natalis est , the Office Hymn at Lauds on the feast of St Agnes. Again, the manner is rather cool and, again, this is not inappropriate – indeed the purity of the singing here approaches that of Gothic Voices in their classic Hyperion recording of the music of Hildegard of Bingen (CDA66039, or CDS44251/3).
On the central tracks, nos. 6-10, we are given a performance of Palestrina’s Missa Veni sponsa Christi . As with the music of Grandi on the earlier Divine Art recording, a good deal of transposition and rearrangement has been necessary to perform this and the other polyphonic works. In Surge illuminare (tr.2), the bassus is ‘played on continuo at pitch’ – harp, organ and bass viol – and, although this continuo is not audibly prominent on the recording, it is enough to ensure that the ear doesn’t crave the missing lower vocal parts.
In the Mass the continuo is even less in evidence and my ear really did miss the lower parts. More seriously, though the work is scored for four voices, the death of Tessa Bonner just before the recording was made resulted in the decision to perform it with just three solo voices. While I fully understand this decision to dedicate the recording to her memory, the general listener is not likely to “hear her voice in every bar” as Laurie Stras and Deborah Roberts state in the notes.
As on track 2, the singing is rather cool; a little more exuberance in the Sanctus (tr.9) would not have come amiss. The ideal version of the Missa Veni sponsa Christi still awaits us, then. If, however, you put aside Beckmesser’s critical slate for the moment and are prepared just to sit back and listen to some beautiful singing, these central tracks certainly make the recording very worthwhile.
On track 11 the Celestial Sirens perform a Sequence for St Agnes’s Day; most of these interpolations between the Epistle and Gospel at Mass were swept away by the Tridentine reforms of the sixteenth century, with Dies iræ at Requiem masses and Victimæ paschali laudes for Easter Sunday the best known of the few survivors. It’s attractive enough in its way and it makes a refreshing break between the polyphony which precedes and follows.
De Rore’s Magnificat which follows on track 12 offers music worthy to be heard in the same programme as the Palestrina Mass. It, too, receives an attractive performance, with tenor and bass transcribed and the lower parts doubled at pitch instrumentally. If this seriatim work – with alternate verses in chant and polyphony, a common practice – leads listeners to other recordings of de Rore’s music, such as the two very fine accounts of the Missa præter rerum seriem by The Tallis Scholars (CDGIM029) and the Huelgas Ensemble (HMC90 1760) I shall be pleased. (See September, 2009, Download Roundup for details of these two recordings and, for the de Rore Mass in a Christmas context, Paul McCreesh’s A Venetian Christmas , DG Archiv 471 3332, which I reviewed in 2007).
The brief antiphon to the Magnificat for Second Vespers of St Agnes follows on track 13, immediately succeeded by Palestrina’s beautiful setting of Alma Redemptoris Mater . The little choir boy in Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale sang this antiphon beautifully:-
This litel child, as he cam to and fro,
Ful murily than wolde he synge and crie
O alma redemptoris everemo.
The swetnesse hath his herte perced so
Of cristes mooder that, to hire to preye,
He kan nat stynte of syngyng by the weye.
but his rendition is unlikely to have excelled that of Clare Wilkinson here. I trust that she avoids his fate.
The beautiful performances of the Holy Saturday Lamentations on tracks 15-17 – the bass part consigned to the continuo – yield only to the complete performances by Musica Contexta of all Palestrina’s settings of the Lamentations complete with their Responsories, together with other music for Holy Week, on Chandos. (CHAN0617, 1065 and 0679 – see April, 2009, Download Roundup). This is life-enhancing music, designed to lift the soul, even though the texts express the abject misery of the desolate inhabitants of Jerusalem. There is a wonderful new Brabant Ensemble/Hyperion recording of the music of Dominique Phinot (CDA67696) which I strongly recommend in my September, 2009, Download Roundup, but I have to admit that Phinot’s 8-part setting of the final Lamentation there yields to Palestrina’s ethereal setting of the same words on track 17 here.
We return to Cipriano de Rore for the second of the Marian antiphons and the final work here, his setting of Regina cœli , in a performance designed, if not to silence my criticisms, at least to put them in perspective – here, at last, the continuo is as audible as I could have wished it to be elsewhere.
The recording is very good, with great clarity the order of the day throughout; the downside of this clarity concerns the comparative anonymity of the continuo. The presentation is attractive and mostly user-friendly. The packaging is of the gatefold variety, now familiar from many companies, especially where the booklet is too large to fit into a conventional plastic case. (In the current instance, this wouldn’t have been a problem.) It’s the usual width, though a little taller than most CD cases and, therefore, impossible to fit into compartmentalised CD drawers.
The notes are informative and fully acknowledge the extent to which the polyphony has had to be edited for female voices. All the texts and translations are provided, except for the five sections of the Mass. Why not? – not everyone will have these texts etched in their memories as fully as those of us who still remember the Tridentine liturgy. JV complained of notes printed in a form difficult to read and, while most of the pages in the current booklet are in legible dark green on pale cream, others are less legible in cream on green. The spelling of Sabato sancto , without the double b , looks like a typo, though Divine Art repeat it on their web page.
Bearing in mind that I partly share JV’s reservations, though I’m a little more willing to set them aside, this new recording is a worthy addition to Musica Secreta’s discography and to the catalogue in general. Yet we still require a recommendable ‘straight’ version of Palestrina’s Missa Veni sponsa Christi , preceded by the motet which inspired it.