The Sixteen / Harry Christophers

Claudio Monteverdi: Messa a quattro voci et Salmi of 1650, Vol .2

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The Sixteen and its leader, Harry Christophers, have devoted several albums to late Monteverdi, and all are quite good: Christophers' note that the choir found the sessions rewarding seems entirely believable, and the ensemble seems to get back to its historical performance roots with sharp, small-ensemble singing and lively, shifting continuo playing. This may be an especially choice item in the series, for it covers music that has not been as widely recorded as other Monteverdi choral works. The Messa a quattro voci et salmi (Mass for four voices and psalms) comes from a volume Monteverdi proposed for publication after his death; his student Cavalli, whose elegant Salve regina is included here, complied with the request. The central attraction is the mass itself, which has been neglected because it is written in the conservative "stile antico" or antique style, the polyphonic style of the 16th century, rather than the newer choral music influenced by the growing genre of opera. From the perspective of those who see music history as an ineluctable march of progress, that has been enough to disqualify the mass, but of course music that looks back to the past is also influenced by its present, and the effect is fascinating in this particular case. The music is in no way rehashed Palestrina. It is tightly constructed motivically, with lots of forward motion (sample the inventive way the Credo is constructed, with homophonic, beat-heavy passages alternating with polyphony and building to an exciting fugue-like finale). The light organ accompaniment leaves plenty of room for the singers, who acquit themselves as well as those of virtuoso small choirs. The mass emerges as entirely of a piece with the psalms and other more contemporary pieces in the book, and the entire set, even if it wouldn't have been performed at a stretch in this way, makes for a satisfying hour of music. One could wish for more oomph from the soloists, but this is still a strong outing from the prolific Sixteen.

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