Sunday, October 4, 2009

Music review: Seraphic Fire luminous in Palestrina mass

Palestrina presents a mass to Pope Julius III.


By Greg Stepanich

FORT LAUDERDALE -- In its previous seven seasons of music-making, the members of Seraphic Fire have presented hugely varied concerts that included everything from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas to American gospel, from all six Bach motets to world premieres of challenging contemporary music written just for them.

But in its opening series of concerts for its eighth season, the Miami-based concert choir has gone back to basics, to the kind of music for which serious vocal ensembles such as this are usually formed: Renaissance polyphony. True to its often-quirky form, Saturday night's concert at All Saints Episcopal in Fort Lauderdale found the ensemble adding theatrical touches and presenting its program in a thematic way that presented the pieces as mutually complementary.

Still, the most important thing was the sheer sound, and this concert of music by Palestrina, Josquin, Dufay and Festa was an intense, riveting journey into the often-severe beauty of sacred music written in the 15th and 16th centuries. At all times, the choir offered a smooth, unbroken, beautiful texture, creating that special sense of timelessness that distinguishes the Western sacred music of this period.

The central work on the program was the Missa Papae Marcelli of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, or most of it, anyway; director Patrick Dupre Quigley excised the Credo and parceled out the other five movements throughout the intermissionless evening. The idea, bolstered by readings from the diary of an imaginary copyist to Palestrina that reflected the church's internal battle over whether to preserve polyphony, was to present music from the era that had hidden messages (the program's actual title: The Musical Da Vinci Code).

I'm not sure much was gained by this approach; the structure of Dufay's Nuper rosarum flores, sung after the Kyrie and the Gloria of the Marcellus mass, mirrors the architectural proportions of the Florence Cathedral, but you can't hear that, really, and it takes very focused listening to hear the Ave Maria floating in and out of Constanzo Festa's setting of the Pater Noster, which was sung before Palestrina's first Agnus Dei.

There were other effective touches, though, such as the candlelit gloom in which the large house at All Saints was ushered before the concert began, and for an abridged version of Gregorio Allegri's Miserere, Quigley divided the choir into three parts: an ensemble at the front on the altar, two chanters to the right, and another ensemble in the balcony at the back. All told, I think it would have been more effective to sing the entire Missa Papae Marcelli at one go, and keep the other pieces in their own unit, because in every other way Seraphic Fire worked so hard to build up expectations for the Palestrina.

But most of the singing Saturday night was at an exceptional level. Quigley's tempos were sensible and effective, and his attention to detail and nuance was admirable. In the Sanctus of the Marcellus mass, he brought the dynamic level far down after the opening section so that the Benedictus section came off as hushed, almost murmured, to lovely effect.

At the end of the Ave Maria, Virgo serena, a motet by Josquin, Quigley led the descending final lines -- O Mater Dei, memento mei (O Mother of God, remember me) -- at a much slower tempo than the rest of the piece, which worked beautifully to underline the fervent words of the text. In both motets, the singing was absorbing, particularly in the Josquin, where the opening bars were sung with gorgeous purity.

In the Dufay motet, which dates from 1436 and is considered one of the composer's most important such works, earlier styles mesh with the emerging style with which Palestrina would be associated, and in this performance, the stress was laid on the new rather than the old. Although this music predates the Marcellus mass by about 130 years, it was sung for the most part very much as though it were a contemporary part of the same world: Round, creamy sound, with little emphasis on its metrical oddities and starker harmonies.

Aside from a glitch in the Miserere, which was cut short after the third climactic high C (of seven) was only shakily reached by the lead soprano, this was a concert of great beauty, and in the Palestrina selections (which also included his motet Tu es Petrus), the real importance of this choir was evident. There are many choirs, professional and amateur, that can handle large swaths of the repertoire including Handel, Mozart, Haydn and any number of contemporary composers.

But it takes real scholars and professionals to sing Palestrina persuasively because, like Bach, every note is important and can't be fudged, or the whole structure falls apart. And when sung well, this is riveting music, a sonic monument that brings history and faith alive in an irresistibly affecting way. And here in these movements from the Missa Papae Marcelli, this is exactly what Saturday's audience got from Seraphic Fire -- lines of seamless counterpoint, tastefully judged cadences, and a feeling of majesty and power from just 13 voices.

Quigley asked that the audience withhold its applause until the end, a wise move that allowed a mood of serenity and contemplative transport to build for more than an hour. The choir followed it with an encore: the Bogorodiste djevo, the more-or-less Ave Maria movement from Rakhmaninov's Vespers, written in 1915.

This, too, was sung with a deeply reverent luminosity, except for the fortissimo climax near the end, which was perhaps a shade too loud. Yet it was an ideal encore for this concert, uniting as it did East and West, faith and church, God and man.

Seraphic Fire will present this concert again this afternoon at the Miami Beach Community Church in Miami Beach. The concert begins at 4 p.m. Tickets: $35. Call 305-285-9060 or visit www.seraphicfire.org.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great review, Mr. Stepanich! The texts added variety to a somewhat homogenous program (as far as the general audiences are concerned), but I was little disappointed with the amount of misinformation presented. Indeed, there were more reasons for the Council of Trento to ban polyphony than the bawdiness of some songs used as basis for the masses. Moreover, any textbook will affirm that the claim that the Papae Marcelli Mass saved polyphony is more of a myth. Still, I think the group's performances more than overcame these scholarly shortcomings...

Greg Stepanich said...

I agree with your point completely: There's likely nothing to the idea that the Missa saved polyphony, though it's an attractive idea. Seraphic Fire tries hard to broaden the appeal of its programs as much as possible, hence the Da Vinci Code tie-in, and while it was suspect on scholarly grounds, it gave the program a useful reference point.

Thanks for your comment, and your kind words.