The Cardinall’s Musick finished 2010 in a blaze of glory with their Gramophone Recording of the Year award for the last volume of their Byrd Edition. Only the second time in thirty years that an Early Music recording has received this prestigious accolade.
Their eagerly-awaited next disc features music from late sixteenth-century Rome and ranges from Allegri’s Miserere, surely the best-known and best-loved work of this period, to a rarely-performed or recorded oddity: the Missa Cantantibus organis.
Seven Roman musicians came together to write a Mass-setting where they each contributed different sections. The resulting work, the twelve-voice Missa Cantantibus organis, is a tribute both to Cecilia (the patron saint of music) and to Palestrina. The seven composers each take themes found in Palestrina’s motet of the same name and use them as the starting point for their new compositions. Palestrina himself is among the seven. All seven composers were prominent maestri in Rome and most appear to have had contact with Palestrina either as choristers or pupils.
Late sixteenth-century Rome was a vigorous and energetic place, stimulated in part by the way in which the Catholic Church had responded to the gauntlet thrown down by the religious reformers of Northern Europe. Two new priestly orders had arisen—the Jesuits and the Oratorians—both with fire in their bellies and a great zeal for evangelism. Lavish works of architecture, art, literature and music revealed a Church which was neither damaged by the Reformation, nor in retreat, but striding forward with ever greater confidence.
Both prelates and aristocrats were patrons of the arts and they were often in competition to employ the finest musicians and to put on ever larger events. One of the ways in which Roman musicians responded to these demands was to develop the art of polychoral music, with two, three or even four choirs performing together, either to produce a massive choral sound or to allow rhetorical ‘discussion’, with one choir answering another, sometimes taking the harmonies in another direction, or jumping in with new material, or being kept silent only to enter with greater force a little later.
The new polychoral style was often more concerned with homophony, when a single choir could declaim the text with all voice parts moving essentially at the same time and another choir could respond. Palestrina embraced this style wholeheartedly, producing in his later publications many pieces for two choirs and some for three.
The remainder of the music on this disc is either written by or inspired by Gregorio Allegri (1582–1652). His early training was as a singer at S Luigi dei Francesi and his first position as maestro was at Santo Spirito in Sassio, Rome. On 6 December 1629 he joined the Papal Choir and was elected maestro di cappella just two years before his death.
The chief delight of this new treasure from The Cardinall’s Musick is not the titular Miserere but the Missa Cantantibus Organis, an extraordinary 12 part mass by seven composers, written as a tribute to Cecilia, patron saint of music … sung here with the brilliance and clarity we have come to expect from this outstanding ensemble’ – The Observer
‘This recording’s breadth of moods, devices and styles is refreshing. As a compendium of practices, the Mass gives vocalists many opportunities to dazzle the listener, whether through finely-wrought imitation, diversity of texture, or triumphant confluence of three choirs into one. Thanks to Andrew Carwood’s directorship, the contrasting effects of these practices are immediately audible … More importantly, the vocalists use declamation to emote, transporting the listener from sorrow to transcendent joy’ – BBC Music Magazine)
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.