Palestrina’s name was synonymous with musical perfection even before his death in 1594, and his reputation as one of the great masters of late-Renaissance, post-Tridentine church polyphony is still as great as it ever was. The Sixteen’s name could equally be said to be synonymous with musical perfection, and the UK choir’s recordings of English, Spanish and Italian Renaissance masterpieces are prized for their combination of passion and precision.
This first volume in a projected series dedicated to a selection of Palestrina’s 104 masses and great motet cycle of the biblical Song of Songs takes as its theme the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven. The centrepiece is the Missa Assumpta Est Maria; also included are a selection of shorter works such as the motet on which the mass is based and three of the Song of Songs most closely associated with Marian devotion.
The performances are, as one would expect, first-rate, and an antidote to the sometimes bloodless approach to this music by The Tallis Scholars. Palestrina’s music moves swiftly and seamlessly between densely woven yet sharply delineated polyphony and rich homophony; furthermore, each part hovers or trembles, drops in or out, plunges or soars according to the demands of the text. Conductor Harry Christophers directs his singers accordingly, the Apollonian splendour of the mass glowing with an intensity as powerful as the long-breathed sensuality afforded the Hebrew love poetry in the Song of Songs, especially Tota pulchra es, amica mea (“You are all beautiful, my beloved”).