The Sixteen, long almost the official choral ensemble of Britain's middlebrow Classic FM radio network, could easily have been forgiven for simply resting on its considerable tonal sheen and recording of more or less the same album of British favorites over and over. Instead, the group has embarked on a series of Palestrina recordings that are both freshly conceived and downright gorgeous. The novel component in the programs is the presence of Palestrina's masses, up to now a generally neglected part of his output. They turn out to be entirely different in concept and sound from his spacious, rich motets, and this volume has an especially intriguing example: one of two examples of a Missa L'homme armé that Palestrina wrote. The tradition of organizing a mass around this little tune in the tenor voice was well over a century old by the time Palestrina came to it, and some might think it would have been played out by then. Not so! Palestrina's mass is both fearsomely learned and rather playful. The manipulation of the L'homme armé melody is accomplished by means of mensuration canons, whereby the tune is accompanied by itself in other voices at different speeds, notated only with a little time signature. This is difficult to hear and perform, and later editions of the mass simplified the notation. But Palestrina hints at what is happening with all kinds of easily heard references to L'homme armé in the freely composed voices. The work is something of a tribute to the long tradition of such masses that had come before, and it's balanced by the unusually fine and largely unfamiliar group of motets on the program. Sample the short Super flumina Babylonis (track 5) with its exquisite depiction of the loneliness of exile in gentle tonal instability. The Sixteen (here bulked up to 18 for the Mass) clarify both text and polyphony flawlessly. And they are backed well by Christophers' engineers at London's Church of St. Alban the Martyr. This is not only a good place to start with the Sixteen's series, but also a Palestrina recording that's going to be heard for a very long time.
AllMusic Review by James Manheim
|Missa L'Homme Armé|