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Cantate Domino | Sistine Chapel Choir

David Barmby

A famous choir transformed under its new director and the first studio recording of the ensemble in the Sistine Chapel.
Cantate Domino | Sistine Chapel Choir

In my youth, the oldest choral institution in the world, the Sistine Chapel Choir, or using its official name: ‘La Capella Sistina e la musica dei Papi’, was going through one of its less illustrious periods.  The boy trebles were wayward in pitch and appeared to lack focus and the gentlemen members of the choir had operatic voices, with some unfortunately past their prime.  Much of the public exposure to the ensemble was within the vast interior of the Basilica of St Peter’s Rome, or even in the piazza outside.  On the occasions I heard the choir it was poorly amplified, the sound emanating from small monitors aloft. These were the final years of the ensemble’s conductor Cardinal Domenico Bartolucci, director of the choir from 1956 until 1997.  Tempi were slow, editions which were outdated and unscholarly put bar-less polyphony into a frame of regular three or four beat units, and interpretation was highly romantic.

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And so it was with a sense of trepidation that I agreed to review this recording mainly of Renaissance music by Palestrina made in March and May, 2015 under the new director Massimo Palombella, but what a revelation it was.  Put simply, the choir is transformed. The boys’ voices are clear, fresh, in tune and sensitive to the repertoire.  Certainly there are still remnants of romantic style, particularly occasional sforzando entries, unnecessary swelling of certain phrases and very long, slow endings, but in terms of sound, tuning and interpretation there are fundamental improvements.  The alto part is sung, according to Palombella’s notes, by tenors who “sing in the altus range”.  These are in fact falsettists but sound nothing like the hoots of English countertenors, rather they are adult full-bodied chest voices with vibrato suggesting to me what the original treble and alto castrati must have sounded like.  Their sound is thrilling.  Tenors and basses are not operatic, have obvious musical training and sensitivity to the repertoire they are singing; particularly the chant singing on the recording is first rate, subtle and demonstrating perfect rapport.  Pulse is halved from the older style in standard polyphony such as Palestrina’s Super flumina Babylonis and Sicut cervus.  I cannot recall a more deeply piteous rendering of Victoria’s Popule meus (‘My people, what have I done to you?’).  But it is Allegri’s Miserere I wish to particularly mention.

Gregorio Allegri was a member of this choir in the early 17th century.  His famous setting of the Miserere (the penitential Psalm 51) is scored for two choirs that sing antiphonally from either end of the building; a quartet of soloists singing from a balcony by the main door to the chapel.  The work was used for several purposes but most famously for the liturgy of Tenebrae in Holy Week.  As each verse of the Psalm was sung and responded to by the distant soloists a candle was extinguished, eventually leaving the Chapel in darkness.  Accompanying all of this of course was the visual splendour of Michelangelo’s high Renaissance ceiling frescoes and The Last Judgement painted a century earlier.  The music was so prized by the Vatican that it discouraged performance anywhere else.  Hearing the 1661 Codex version sung here for the first time within the generous acoustic of the chapel for which it was intended and imagining the grandeur of the restored fresco fading into darkness is a uniquely profound experience well worth the price of the recording alone.

It was also humbling to hear Palestrina’s glorious setting of Tu es Petrus (You are Peter) by this ensemble and in this context with the words et tibi dabo claves regni caelorum (And I will give you the keys of heaven) ringing in my mind long after the recording ended.

Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

Cantate Domino | Sistine Chapel Choir

Massimo Palombella, director

Deutsche Grammophon 479 5300

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

David Barmby is former head of artistic planning of Musica Viva Australia, artistic administrator of Bach 2000 (Melbourne Festival), the Australian National Academy of Music and Melbourne Recital Centre.

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