Ensemble Officium / Wilfried Rombach

Palestrina: Le Vergini

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Here's a fine recording from Germany's Ensemble Officium of some of Palestrina works that aren't often heard but that are just as characteristic of his style as any of the more common masses and motets. Petrarch's set of sonnet stanzas entitled "Le vergini" (The Virgins) represent perhaps the ultimate transmutation of secular love into sacred fervor in the history of poetry; they are the culmination of a great cycle of sonnets addressed to the poet's beloved, Laura, who eventually becomes conflated in his mind with the Virgin. There are 11 stanzas himself, but Palestrina set only eight, probably because it is possible (although by this stage of the Renaissance it is difficult to apply modal theory to polyphony) to assign one of these sacred madrigals to each church mode. They are indeed true sacred madrigals, not simply motets with an unusual text form; they are, for Palestrina, unusually vivid in depicting the text imagery, but they do so without losing the composer's characteristic well-modulated calm. It's a very appealing combination, and the madrigals are beautifully sung by this mixed-gender adult small group, just perfect in size for what must have been compositions for a small group of Roman connoisseurs. The program is rounded by an unusual, late Palestrina mass, the Missa Ave regina caelorum, published in 1599 after the composer's death. The work is sort of a combination of a cantus firmus mass and a parody mass, based on a motivically tight piece of chant that is worked into all the voices of the composition. To increase the intensity, as for instance at the Crucifixus (track 13), Palestrina reduces the number of voices, boiling the music down to its tonal and motivic essence. It's a work that music theorists could really go to town with, but it's equally satisfying for ordinary listeners, and quite different in effect from the spacious Pope Marcellus Mass. Fine sound rounds out the appeal of this valuable addition to the Palestrina shelf of any a cappella choral music fan's collection.

Track Listing

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time
Le Vergini, Madrigali spirituali a cinque voci
1 4:23
2 3:29
3 4:12
4 4:22
5 4:12
6 3:34
7 3:54
8 3:46
9 1:59
Missa "Ave Regina cælorum", a quattro/cinque voci
10 3:03
11 5:33
12 3:52
13 1:40
14 3:27
15 1:39
16 1:55
17 3:26
blue highlight denotes track pick