16 April 2018

The Real Sistine Chapel Choir


Having heard a concert last night of music sung in the 16th century by the Sistine Chapel Choir, I felt it appropriate to draw attention to the latest recording from the current Sistine Chapel Choir.  It really is lovely.  Here's my review from MusicWeb Internaitonal (from whom the disc can be purchased). 

To hear music especially written for the Sistine Chapel, much of it by former members of the Sistine Chapel choir, sung by the present-day Sistine Chapel Choir and recorded in the Sistine Chapel is reason enough to celebrate the release of this disc.  That every work on the disc is a true gem, a miniature masterpiece (to quote the booklet notes, “the finest polyphonic works of the Renaissance and Baroque periods”), and that some of it has not been heard before outside the Sistine Chapel is an even more compelling reason to seek this disc out.  And, if further inducement was needed, they have brought in no less a figure than Cecilia Bartoli to be the first female voice ever to be recorded alongside this all-male choir. 

Monseigneur Massimo Palombella, the choir’s director, has been given free rein of the Vatican’s huge musical library, and has clearly relished the opportunity to delve into musicological research not only in finding the music and preparing it for performance, but in philosophising over the ways in which it might have originally been performed.  This has led to some decisions about performance which he puts into practice in this disc, one of which is to place smaller sections of the choir in the gallery to contrast with the main body of the choir recorded standing before the altar.  This, however, is not always evident in a recording which keeps the voices, wherever they are in the chapel, at roughly the same distance from the microphones. On top of that, carpets were laid down for the recording sessions in a bid to dampen the chapel’s voluminous acoustic, and while the resultant sound is warm and immensely comforting, surrounded by a pleasing halo of acoustic space, it also has a muffled quality with detail in the lower voices often obscure.

The programme itself draws on music which is associated with historic Papal celebrations of that period of the church’s year which extends from Advent through Christmas and Epiphany to Candlemas, and ranges from the 12th century (Peronitus) to the 17th (Allegri).  There are three works billed as “World Premiere Recordings” by Dufay, Allegri and Marenzio, as well as several well-known motets, including an atmospheric performance of Victoria’s O magnum mysterium. Those who know Giovanni Allegri only through his famous Lenten setting of the Miserere mei will immediately spot some stylistic differences, but this performance of his Nasceris, alme puer suffers badly from an irritating habit Palombella has of excessive phrase bulging - introducing sudden, short but heavy swelling dynamics - and of pulling up the ends of phrases abruptly (presumably to let the acoustic finish the job off).  Perhaps that tendency is at its most annoying in Palestrina’s Canite tuba in Sion where the continual dynamic surges induce a sensation akin to mal de mer.

Nevertheless Palombella has built a fine choir here which is easily in its element both with the music and the environment (the booklet includes a stunning picture of the choir in rehearsal all but overwhelmed by Michelangelo’s great altar wall fresco of The Last Judgement, and, as if to remind us how church music has changed since the time when these works were written, another photo of them gathered round an electric keyboard).  The performances are well prepared and effectively and confidently delivered.  Quicker passagework is not always secure - there’s a moment of unfortunate scruffiness in the livelier passagework of Nonino’s motet Hodie nobis caelorum Rex – and in places tuning of the lower parts wobbles.  But overall this is a disc which exudes calm and beauty and where technicalities pale into insignificance beside the supreme loveliness of the music and the recorded sound.  My real concern is that it is in danger of becoming swamped by its own beauty.  Try as I might, I find it difficult to identify clear differences between the works being performed; after a while they all merge into a kind of smooth, conglomerate, velvety aural wallpaper which, for all its supreme loveliness, loses its impact simply because the superficial effect is so appealing.

Bartoli’s contribution is to Peronitus’s Beata viscera Mariae Virginis.  It may last less than four minutes of music, but it is four minutes of absolute sublimity.  Bartoli beautifully encapsulates the essence of a text which conveys the joy, wonder and mystery of the Virgin birth.

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