Brabant Ensemble / Stephen Rice

Palestrina: Missa Ad coenam Agni

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After having been out of fashion for some time, the music of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina is once again attracting Renaissance performers. This one features the 15-voice Brabant Ensemble from Britain, a superb small choir from whose output you can confidently pick anything and not go wrong. Here, the ensemble and its director, Stephen Rice, take on an early work by Palestrina, the Missa ad coenam Agni. This mass appeared in 1554, years before the probably apocryphal incident in which he is said to have "saved" polyphony by convincing the new Counter Reformation Catholic regime that it could be done without recourse to sensualist techniques of text expression. The work hasn't been recorded much, and it's fascinating. It is very much a product of its composer, despite its early date, with vast musical spaces built atop the piece of plainchant that serves as its cantus firmus. But into those spaces are built bits of complex contrapuntal artifice. The work has more of what you might call oomph (a technical term) than do Palestrina's later masses, and the Brabant Ensemble sings it to the hilt. This group has a pure sound that is the product of painstaking ensemble work but does not foreclose expressive phrase shapes and crescendos. The effect in Palestrina is magical: you feel like you are entering a great cathedral of sound, and Hyperion's engineers, working in Oxford's Church of St. Michael and All Angels, have outdone themselves. In addition to the mass, which might have been slightly enhanced if it had been broken up with smaller liturgical pieces in the fashion of the time, the program includes a variety of smaller pieces, concluding with an alternate setting of the same chant on which the mass is based. A superior recording of a cappella Renaissance choral music.

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