An evocative blend of liturgy, history, and magisterial polyphony

PALESTRINA –  Missa Papae Marcelli 

The Tudor Consort,
director, Michael Stewart

Wellington Cathedral of St Paul

3rd September 2022

For readers without a keen interest in Renaissance polyphony performance practice, let me say upfront that the Tudor Consort gave a luminous, beautifully tuned, highly polished and uplifting performance of Palestrina’s most famous mass setting, one which could easily hold its own against the many existing recordings of the piece by eminent choral ensembles. Arguably, the first challenge of performing such a well-beloved masterpiece is simply to live up to people’s memories of it; not to place unwanted obstacles on the well-worn path the audience has looked forward to treading. This, however, gives rise to a second challenge: how to make the experience of listening new, interesting, and worth showing up for on a chilly Wellington evening?  The Tudor Consort (henceforth TC) is more than capable of meeting the first challenge, and one could easily imagine the live recording of this performance taking up a place in RNZ Concert’s regular rotation. I could end this review here were it not for the much more interesting question of how Michael Stewart and his singers addressed themselves to the second challenge.

Per the concert programme, the Missa Papae Marcelli (henceforth MPM) was presented “in the form of a Mass reconstruction for the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” This practice of liturgical reconstruction, established by TC’s founding director Simon Ravens, might seem a straightforward idea enough, but in fact it raises more questions than it answers: which liturgy is to be reconstructed? How strictly? On the basis of what information? And to what artistic end?  

In the given case, one might have expected to hear a Catholic Mass as Palestrina himself would have experienced it – a literal reconstruction of the historical context from which the MPM arose.  What we got, however, was something more creative and nuanced. Michael Stewart’s programming is always thoughtful and intelligent, and here he made strategic departures from both liturgical and historical fidelity for the sake of musical interest. These included (1) the selection of Gregorian chants, (2) the inclusion of polyphonic settings of some of the chants, and (3) the voicing of the Gospel reading. Essentially, the programme presented the music of the Tridentine Mass as it might have been heard in the century before Vatican II (i.e., well after Palestrina) with a few additional flourishes that, while extra-liturgical, made sound artistic sense.  

First, the selection of chants. The liturgical chants that comprise the fabric of the Mass fall into two categories, ordinary (performed at every Mass) and proper (specific to the date in the liturgical calendar). Mass settings like Palestrina’s provide polyphonic versions of the ordinary chants (the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Santus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei), leaving space for the propers (Introit, Gradual, etc.) to be filled in as appropriate; for this Mass reconstruction, Stewart selected the chants proper to the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which falls on 8 September.  Gregorian chant itself underwent a significant “reconstruction” process in the nineteenth century, led by the monks of Solemnes Abbey in France, whose editions provide the basis of most contemporary chant performance, including this one (though many conductors, including Stewart, disregard the Solemnes rhythm markings, which are controversial). While the Solemnes editions purport to restore the chants to their “original” forms, this is precisely why they don’t reflect what Palestrina himself would have heard – since he lived in the very midst of the ongoing process of revision (“corruption”!) that the Solemnes monks would later seek to reverse.

The legend that Palestrina “saved” church polyphony from a death sentence at the Council of Trent by writing the MPM – in which the wordiest texts, those of the Gloria and Credo, are pronounced simultaneously by (almost) all the singers, making the words easy to hear – makes the juxtaposition of the Mass with the “restored” 19th-century chants particularly piquant. While the Palestrina-as-saviour story is considered apocryphal, the textual transparency of the MPM is undeniably striking, and probably does reflect the composer’s awareness of contemporary concerns about the intelligibility of liturgical texts – concerns that would also have influenced ongoing revisions to the plainchant sections of the mass. The refurbished Solemnes chants, however, are often quite complex and ornate, making few concessions to intelligibility! This complexity was underscored by the slow, careful chanting of TC’s tenors and basses during the Introit, as the choir processed to the front of the church; though monodic, the chant is not so simple that walking and singing at the same time comes easily. They got palpably livelier once they had arrived in place and had a conductor in front of them.

In a second departure from strict authenticity, Stewart followed the plainchant Introit, “Salve, Sancta Parens,” with a polyphonic setting of the same text by Adrian Willaert (1490-1562), who (as maestro di cappella at St Mark’s in Venice 1527-62) was a dominant figure in the musical landscape of Palestrina’s youth. Willaert’s motet is scored for six voices: two free-composed and the others paired off in canons, one of which paraphrases the plainchant melody. This produces the effect of a self-propelling machine in perpetual motion, as each new phrase interrupts the echo of the preceding one and sets off its own echo, which is in turn interrupted.  Although the plainchant melody – which we had just heard – serves as a cantus firmus, it is virtually indistinguishable in the complex interplay of voices, even in TC’s crisp and disciplined performance. Their ensemble singing here was spectacular; I particularly enjoyed their smooth braking at the end of the piece, with Stewart’s conducting imposing an orderly ritardando and clearly laying out the resolution of each line into the final cadence. 


By the time we got to Palestrina, then, the audience had already heard two ways in which a liturgical text could be both beautified and, to some extent, obscured by a musical setting. The comparative transparency of the MPM settings – the Kyrie and Gloria are sung back-to-back – was immediately palpable, underscored by TC’s crisp singing, clear entrances, and (in the Kyrie at least) perfectly simultaneous consonants.  These were followed by a brief Collect, then the Gradual and Alleluia chants, both gloriously melismatic, followed by the Gospel reading, also chanted in Latin (I should mention that the performance was accompanied by slides which gave the Latin text and English translation of each piece of liturgy, an excellent idea, much better than forcing people to squint at program notes, and only slightly marred by typos in the Latin).  Here we met Stewart’s third piece of artistic licence, which was to split up the Gospel reading among many (all?) of the male voices, rather than having one singer impersonate the priest.  This innovation was inspired by the form of the text, which for this Feast Day happens to be the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel – the genealogy of Jesus stretching all the way back to Abraham, a long, long series of “begat”s. Scattering these among a series of soloists, entering as it were on each other’s heels, both added textural interest and sped things up.  By breaking up the monotony of the text, it paradoxically underlined it, adding a new dimension of meaning to the text by calling our attention to the sheer number of generations that had to survive, and meetings (each a small miracle in its way) that had to occur, to get from Abraham to Jesus via King David.  As a scholar of literature, I appreciated this – but nonetheless welcomed the relief of Palestrina’s exuberant Credo setting, performed with a beautifully blended tone and perfect diction to round off the first half of the concert.


The Credo marks the end of the Mass of the Catechumens, which is followed in the Tridentine rite by the Mass of the Faithful, so this was a liturgically as well as musically appropriate place to break for a short interval before recommencing with the Offertory, this time chanted by the treble voices. The Offertory text, “Beata Es, Virgo Maria,” would return at the end of the concert in Palestrina’s glorious 8-part setting, another inspired moment of liturgical deconstruction. First, however, we had to get through the central drama of the Mass, the liturgy of the Eucharist.  The choir gave beautiful renderings of Palestrina’s Sanctus and Agnus Dei movements, with legato lines so sinuous they could plausibly pass for angelic. If I had a wish here, I’d have liked to hear the sopranos open up more – I’m a fan of the adult soprano sound in early music, a huge improvement over the children favoured by some – and similarly in the Merulo motet that duplicated the Communion chant, “Beata viscera,” later on (bookending the duplication of the Introit at the start of the programme).  Merulo, eight years younger than Palestrina, provided an interesting contrast to their older contemporary Willaert, and to Palestrina himself, but I can’t say this piece made a huge impression on me; in contrast, the choir absolutely lit up when they returned to Palestrina with the closing “Beata Es” motet. Whether this reflects my taste, or theirs, or the solemnity of the Roman liturgy, or simply the mastery of Palestrina as compared to everyone else, who can say, but the choir felt like a different instrument performing Palestrina than they did in the rest of the programme; here, they genuinely soared.  

Congratulations to the Tudor Consort on this moving and evocative concert, a compelling tribute to Palestrina as well as an intellectually and artistically coherent performance.

 

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