Palestrina Masses and Motets

Author: 
Tess Knighton
Palestrina Masses and Motets

Palestrina Masses and Motets

  • Assumpta est Maria in caelum
  • Missa Assumpta est Maria
  • Assumpta est Maria
  • Missa Sicut lilium inter spinas
  • Sicut lilium inter spinas I

In his review of the Chapelle Royale's recording of Palestrina's Missa Assumpta est Maria on Ricercar/Harmonia Mundi, DF pointed out that it was a curious omission not to have included the motet on which this work is based. Well, here it is on this new version from The Tallis Scholars—their fifth recording of Palestrina masses—together with another parody mass, the Sicut lilium with its corresponding motet. It is indeed illuminating to hear how the larger-scale compositions unfold with reference to the original motets: close study, of course, would reveal much about the compositional processes of the High Renaissance, but any listener will be able to appreciate the organic relationship between motet and Mass. In addition, Peter Phillips has here deliberately paired two sharply contrasted parody Masses: Assumpta est Maria, the better known, is thought to be one of Palestrina's last masses, while Sicut lilium dates from relatively early in his career. The former, with its major tonality and divisi high voices (SSATTB), is marvellously bright and open and is given a correspondingly outgoing performance, while the latter, inflected with chromaticism and melodic intervals that constantly fall back on themselves, is darker-hued and more plaintive, a mood well captured here in the intensity of the singing.
However, what is perhaps most striking is the difference in compositional technique between the two works: Sicut lilium relies largely on imitative textures for the unfolding of its structure (though there are the customary block chords on phrases such as ''et homo factus est'', performed here with magical effect), while Assumpta est Maria makes far greater use of vocal scoring as a formal device and thus looks forward to the contrast principle of the baroque.
The Tallis Scholars make the most of the contrasted blocks of sound here, achieving, as we have come to expect, an impressive vocal blend and balance (though I still have reservations about the countertenors when high in their range). However, I feel that some of the phrasing, particularly in the Kyrie, is perhaps a little too mannered and that the very beautiful Agnus Dei verges on the narcissistic and therefore becomes rather too static. The flow in the Missa Sicut lilium, though, is excellent throughout, The Tallis Scholars achieve a flexible expressiveness that cannot be rivalled by Herreweghe and the Chapelle Royale whatever the other strengths of that particular recording.'

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