How Fair Thou Art: Biblical Passions by Palestrina
Several complete recordings exist of Palestrina’s sacred madrigal cycle on the biblical Song of Songs. For this reason, perhaps, The King’s Singers have chosen to intersperse a selection of its contents with settings of the four Marian antiphons. The juxtaposition of sacred and secular would not have troubled Palestrina’s contemporaries, and the inclusion of the antiphons imparts a variety that the madrigal cycle on its own might not quite manage. They also number among the recording’s finest performances, and all are nicely contrasted in terms of scoring. The four-voice Ave regina celorum includes only the tenors and basses – a strikingly individual texture – while the concluding Salve regina is an extended setting more richly scored than anything else heard here.
At its best, The King’s Singers’ sweetness of tone seems perfectly to match the sense of the text. The decision to break up the cycle allows them to vary the scoring from one madrigal to the next: at times both countertenors take the top line, which yields a novel sonority. It also permits a greater flexibility of tempo between madrigals, some being noticeably faster than others. All this is perfectly justifiable on its own terms, since it is far from certain that Palestrina would have envisaged performing the cycle at one sitting. If there is one possible criticism, it is the elusiveness of the madrigal quality in the cycle (‘sacred’, yes, but they’re still madrigals). To be fair, it’s a problem that few if any recorded interpretations of the set have convincingly accounted for (unlike the performances of that other great madrigal cycle of the time, Lassus’s Lagrime di San Pietro), but, given this ensemble’s admirable versatility, it is surprising that they don’t address it more directly.