by Daniel Hathaway

QuireJohn, son of Louis from the town of Palestrina, essentially became the official composer of the Church of Rome when he was appointed as master of the papal choir (Cappella Giulia) at St. Peter’s Basilica in 1551 and had come to represent the culmination and perfection of Renaissance polyphony by the time he died in 1594. He wrote as many masses as Haydn wrote symphonies, as well as hundreds of motets, offertories and hymns for use in the Roman Rite.

Quire Cleveland gave a large audience just a taste of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s vast trove of liturgical music on Saturday evening, May 25 at Historic St. Peter’s Church in downtown Cleveland when guest conductor Jameson Marvin conducted the 22 professional singers in what is probably Palestrina’s most famous mass setting, its movements interspersed with six motets, five of them on Marian texts.

Though partly chosen for its namesake, St. Peter’s Church is an excellent place to hear Renaissance polyphony. Minimally furnished, its gothic vault and walls painted white (like Catholic churches in the Low Countries after Protestant iconoclasts had done their work), the nave’s hard surfaces allow vocal lines to bloom and linger, but its relatively small scale makes it possible to hear everything clearly.

This was immediately evident in the motet O beata et gloriosa trinitas, which opened the 80-minute program with a nod to next Sunday’s feast day. Quire sounded robust and strong, shaping the work’s surging lines with superb blend and transparency. Pope Julian and Palestrina would have been lucky to have so fine a choir as this.

A long urban legend has it that Palestrina wrote his Missa Papae Marcelli as a response to an incipient ban on florid counterpoint by the Council of Trent. That notion has pretty well been debunked now, but whatever its inspiration, the mass is a gorgeous collection of polyphonic writing. It might have been revealing to hear the whole piece end to end, but nobody in Palestrina’s day did — mass movements were separated by various liturgical actions, symbolized here by the inserted motets.

Three of the motets are from the same Julian Chapel manuscript — Salve Regina, Ave Maria and Regina caeli — all for eight-voice, double choir, which served to bring variety of texture to the program, as did Ave maris stella, which alternated chant and polyphony, and the short Alma redemtoris mater from a lost manuscript at the English College in Rome.

Jameson Marvin, who conducted the Harvard University choruses for 32 years and has a special place in his musical heart for Renaissance polyphony, led ecstatic, sweeping performances of these ten pieces, exploring a whole range of dynamics and drawing out the last two chords in each final cadence as if reluctant to let them fade into the ether. Even so, perfectly tuned final consonances hung in the air like celestial bells.

Though it was interesting to hear so much Palestrina in one sitting, the conservative nature of his music (some call it “smooth polyphony”, like “smooth jazz”) left these ears yearning for a little more overt dissonance or a harmonic surprise now and again. The audience (many sitting in overflow folding chairs) still wanted more after Regina caeli and Marvin and Quire plated up one of Palestrina’s choicest morsels as an encore: his setting of Psalm 42, Sicut cervus desiderat ad fontes aquarum. Anyone who has ever sung Palestrina will have sung that one.

Published on May 28, 2013

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