Music for the Sistine Chapel
During the second half of the fifteenth century the papal choir was established in what was to remain its final form for the next couple of centuries by Sixtus IV, the founder of the Sistine Chapel. Until its decline in the eighteenth century, this celebrated musical foundation, which served as a model for countless other institutions throughout Catholic Europe, employed a steady stream of eminent singers and composers, including Dufay, Josquin, Morales and Palestrina. Much of their music was written for the Sistine Chapel, and a large series of surviving choirbooks in the Vatican Library offers a detailed insight into what the choir sang, and the way in which older repertory continued to be performed much later than it would elsewhere. In addition, ceremonial books and other contemporary documents provide a great deal of information about when and how polyphony was incorporated into the liturgy. If there was ever a case for well-founded historical reconstruction of sixteenth-century music, then the Sistine Chapel repertory is surely it.
In many ways, the Taverner Consort and their director Andrew Parrott are well-equipped for the task. Parrott has always shown himself to be alive to the historical issues of early-music performance, and able to provide thoughtful and sometimes controversial answers to interpretational difficulties. His records always provide a surprise, and this one is no exception. The centrepiece is not (as might be thought from the advertised contents of the record) Allegri's famous Miserere but rather a compound version of that work in which successive verses are taken from differently arranged and ornamented versions that have survived among the Sistine manuscripts. The result is not a piece that was ever performed, but an intriguing historical hybrid, delivered with an appropriately bright and at times even slightly hard sound. There seems to be a conscious effort here to achieve an Italianate effect, and it is very effective particularly in the upper lines which possess a firm and rich tone close (one imagines) to the sound that the falsettists who sang this part in the sixteenth century might have achieved.
Yet despite the imagination and care with which this record has been planned and executed (the decision to add embellishment to pieces other than the Allegri might be singled out as an example of Parrott's attention to historical detail), there remains a striking curiosity. Sixtus IV established the choir at a membership of 24 singers, and in the course of the next century the numbers rose. But the Taverner Consort perform all the pieces on this record with only one voice to a part. Certainly much of this music (though not the Allegri) would have been performed in this way in Brescia or Bergamo, but the one place it would not have been done with such small forces was the Sistine Chapel.
For a record which wears its academic credentials so conspicuously, and on the whole successfully, this is an extraordinary decision for which neither the generous acoustic nor the sensitive efforts of the engineers can compensate.'