PALESTRINA: Missa Papae Marcelli / ALLEGRI: Miserere (Jeremy Summerly/ Oxford Camerata/ Oxford Schola Cantorum) (Naxos: 8.553238)
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Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c. 1525 - 1594)
Missa Papae Marcelli
Missa Aetema Christi
Munera Stabat mater
Gregorio Allegri (1582 -1652)
Palestrina's 104 Masses and 177 motets make him the most prolific and consistent composer of the Counter-Reformation, and yet until this century his reputation has remained firm almost exclusively because of one Mass, the Missa Papae Marcelli, and the legends surrounding it. Published in 1567, the Mass was dedicated to Pope Marcellus II, who reigned for a mere three weeks in 1555, and seems in part to have been a contribution to the debate over the function of polyphony in the changing Roman Catholic liturgy. Extremists at the Council of Trent wanted polyphony, with its sometimes scant regard for textual clarity, banned in favour of plainsong, but the final injunctions of the Council warned only against everything \impure or lascivious" in the music. Palestrina's nineteenth century biographer Baini attributed the reason for this to his hero's Missa Papae Marcelli, with its settings of the Gloria and Credo, which are chordal and declamatory rather than thickly woven.
It has been suggested that the Missa Papae Marcelli was subversive of the Council's dictates in a subtler way. It was a long-established practice to base Masses on anything from sacred motets to bawdy chansons. Reformers were keen that worshippers' ears should no longer be tickled by quotations from secular song, and yet the themes of the Missa Papae Marcelli bear a dangerous resemblance to that most popular of medieval songs, L 'homme anne. If this was the snub to authority some say it was, it is just another tribute to Palestrina's genius in unifying the movements of a Mass through continuous and methodical development of his initial theme.
There is no such doubt about the basis of Palestrina's Missa Aeterna Christi munera, which takes material from the plainsong hymn of the same name. Although a later work -it was published in 1590 - its four-part scoring and relatively straightforward exposition of the hymn-tune demonstrates Palestrina in more conservative spirit. Here are the most representative aspects of his style - the smooth, eminently singable lines, the unchallenging harmonies and his resourcefulness with smaller textures, such as in the near perfect three-part Benedictus. Most of all, Palestrina's settings embody the archaic, dogmatic completeness of Counter-Reformation Catholicism, making him a supreme musical theologian.
The Stabat mater is a miniature on a grand scale and remains one of Palestrina's best-loved works. The hypnotic harmonies are overtly modal thereby giving a distinctly nostalgic air to the word painting. This still life of the Virgin Mary gazing upon the body of her crucified Son is amongst the most potent and touching portraits of the late Renaissance. The humanistic ideal of the ability of great art to redeem the human soul is perfectly achieved in Palestrina's setting of the text.
Trained as a chorister in Rome from the age of nine, Gregorio Allegri continued as a singer in Rome and at Fermo and Tivoli. In 1628 he became maestro di cappella at the church of Santo spirito in sassia in Rome and from 1630 he was a singer in the papal chapel of Pope Urban VIII. His best known composition for the papal choir is his nine-part Miserere, a psalm-setting customarily performed by the choir in Holy Week. The work remained the exclusive property of the papal choir and was copied out from memory by Mozart, when he heard the work sung in Rome in 1770. Three years later Dr. Burney took a copy of the Miserere, with other music of the chapel, during the course of his extended investigative journey through Europe.
The Oxford Camerata was formed in order to meet the growing demand for choral groups specialising in music from the Renaissance era. It has since expanded its repertoire to include music from the medieval period to the present day using instrumentalists where necessary. The Camerata currently tours regularly within Europe and has made a variety of recordings for Naxos spanning the music of nine centuries.
Schola Cantorum of Oxford
Schola Cantorum of Oxford is Oxford University's longest-running and most celebrated chamber choir. Much in demand for appearances at major music festivals in Britain and abroad Schola Cantorum has been conducted by Leonard Bernstein, Gustav Leonhardt, Sir Colin Davis, and Sir Neville Marriner as well as by Britten, Tippett, and Stravinsky in performances of their own music.
Jeremy Summerly was a choral scholar at New College, Oxford from where he graduated with first class Honours in Music in 1982. For the next seven years he worked for BBC Radio and it was during this time that he founded the Oxford Camerata and undertook postgraduate research at King's College, London. In 1989 he became a lecturer at the Royal Academy of Music and in the following year he was appointed conductor of Schola Cantorum of Oxford. In 1991 he signed a long-term contract with Naxos to record a variety of music with Schola Cantorum and the Oxford Camerata.