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Veni Domine – Sistine Chapel Choir and Cecilia Bartoli

David Barmby

A Christmas album for connoisseurs of the Renaissance.
Veni Domine – Sistine Chapel Choir and Cecilia Bartoli

If there is one decision made during the reign of Pope Benedict XVI (2005-2013) for which we should all be grateful, it was his edict in 2010 to reform and refresh the Cappella Musicale Pontifica ‘Sistina’ and encourage its new Maestro Direttore Massimo Palombella to explore, restore and perform repertoire from the treasury of music contained within the Vatican Archive. This gift to the world will surely go down in our musical history as a significant event. The Sistine Chapel Choir, as it is more popularly known, here continues its excellent work with a recording of Advent and Christmas music entitled Veni Domine (usually translated as ‘Come Lord Jesus’). This is the third album on Deutsche Grammophon to be released in as many years (the previous releases, Cantata Domino and Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli have also been reviewed by ArtsHub). Once again it was recorded in the magnificent ambience of the Chapel after which it is named, between February and September this year. Several of the famous Renaissance composers represented (for example Guillaume Dufay, Josquin Desprez and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina) were past choristers of this vocal ensemble, singing in the same Chapel.

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The ensemble once again presents as a chorus angelorum: responsive, confident and deeply sensitive. The presence of famous Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli might suggest some lighter repertoire, but the only track on which she sings is as soloist with the choir in the motet Beata viscera Mariae Virginis by Pérotin, a French polyphonist from the Notre Dame school who flourished in the 12th century. This work is three minutes and 48 seconds of pure and sustained bliss. Bartoli captures the purity, awe and mystery of the Virgin birth particularly with the words ‘O new wonder and unexpected source of joy’. Palombella must certainly have powerful persuasive skills to ask this soloist, famous for her Baroque operatic coloratura, to sing such early repertoire, her voice exposed with little covering vibrato. I genuinely cannot imagine a more exquisite sound. To hear this motet alone is worth the price of the recording.

Palombella contributes a most interesting essay to the recording dealing with original text, its transformation into sound and interpretation. He clearly is relishing his role as a musicologist with full access to the Vatican Archive, comparing manuscripts and early editions and restoring them for performance by his resident choir. Gregorio Allegri’s motet Nasceris, alme puer with similarities to his famous Miserere here receives its first recording in a new critical edition, along with the hymn Christe, Redemptor omnium that combines the hymn chant with polyphony by Luca Marenzo.

Perhaps over-defending his position, Palombella argues that the aims and intent of the Council of Trent are reflected in works that convey a clarity of text with anything “lascivious and impure” banished, while the chant represented is taken from the Liber hymnarius of Solesmes (1983) the official hymnal revised in accord with reforms of Vatican II that “restores both words and music to us in their early forms, stripped of the incrustations they have acquired over centuries”. I would counter-argue that the performance practice Palombella and his ensemble have settled on is an aesthetic construct. There is little that is ‘authentic’ about the particular French Solesmes style of singing chant other than being true to itself. Surely plainchant was concurrently sung in the medieval church in a wide variety of styles across Europe. The recordings and extensive research of Lebanese/French Sœur Marie Keyrouz would clearly expose this myth of any sole ‘authenticity’ in chant performance practice.

Similarly his “resolved style” adopted for singing polyphony that he argues is allegedly “saved … from ideological approaches that … lead to sterile self-referentiality and a gradual transformation of professionalism into superficial dilettantism” is in fact often indulgently romantic with pronounced swelling of dynamic from pianissimo to forte and back again within a phrase, along with old-fashioned exaggerated diminuendos and extra-long final chords. This seems to be despite his intent of “paying meticulous ‘horizontal’ attention to phrasing, enabling a logical articulation of the notes”. And the peculiarly reserved Hodie Christus natus est by Palestrina with its limpid noès that surely the world has heard as an outpouring of Counter-Reformation exuberance and rejoicing is further evidence of his individuality of style. So while I don’t agree with every aspect of style, the pace or tactus feels right and the proportional relationships of metre are also convincing. The Renaissance rules of transposition are adhered to accurately with high tenors singing the altus part and the top line in a comfortable range. It was a delight to hear boy trebles delicately ornamenting Victoria’s O Magnum Mysterium.

The sound of the recording, though, is different to the first two, being more distant, ambient and lacking in clarity, particularly the lower adult voices that often sound as a wash of sound, though not the upper parts or soloists. This is odd, given that the executive producer and producer (Tonmeister) for all three recordings are the same people. The full choir is recorded before the altar and there are smaller groups singing from the back gallery, though the latter is just as closely monitored as the main ensemble, somewhat defeating the purpose of separating them for the listener. And although a list of choristers is not included in the liner notes I can see that a few singers listed as soloists are core to all three recordings, while several new names are listed on the latest. I wondered if there has been a more than usual turnover of adult singers in the past year. Sometimes tuning and quality of voices, particularly falsettists and baritones, are less than adequate.

With one or two reservations this is a most enjoyable recording and it is recommended. We can only hope that a tour to Australia by the Sistine Chapel Choir is not too far away.

4 stars out of 5

Veni Domine
Advent and Christmas Music at the Sistine Chapel
Sistine Chapel Choir
Massimo Palombella
Cecilia Bartoli
Deutsche Grammophon
Released: 27 October, 2017
479 7524

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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