What sort of sound did Palestrina's choir make, when they gave the first performance of Palestrina's Missa Dum complerentur? We don't know. We can't even be sure whether the top line was sung by falsettists, castrati, boys or a combination of all three - not women, of course, that is certain given the church's attitude. What is probably true is that Palestrina's choir didn't sound anything like Christ Church Cathedral choir under Stephen Darlington. This recording was made in 1987, one of the first they made after Stephen Darlington took over from Francis Grier in 1985.
The choir's sound is the epitome of the English cathedral sound, with lovely clear, transparent trebles. There is no hint of the continental sound of Westminster Cathedral. This is neither a good thing nor a bad one, simply a style preference. And when the English cathedral sound is done well as it is here, then it is very seductive. The male altos blend very well with the trebles. But there is the feeling, inevitable in most cathedral choirs, that the men singing the lower parts are not quite the equals of the professional chamber choirs who have made the repertoire their own. Then again, if you look at the choir roster, there are number of names such as Andrew Carwood and Edward Wickham, who have gone on to greater things.
Christ Church Cathedral Choir sing this repertoire on a regular basis in a liturgical context. And this helps bring a naturalness and directness to the performance. You don't get the sort of highly controlled, well modulated performance that a group like, say, the Tallis Scholars would give. And in fact, Nimbus engineers have given the recording some distance, but everything remains clear.
Palestrina's Missa Dum complerentur is a relatively gentle work which responds to Stephen Darlington's relaxed approach, with flexible tempi and a nice feeling for the structure of the piece.
The performance couldn't be anything but English, but it is done with such artistry and naturalness that I was very taken with the result. If you feel you need a more continental approach then Martin Baker and Westminster Cathedral Choir recorded the mass in 2003. The Westminster boys still preserve their famous continental sound. So you have a choice.
Christ Church pair the mass with a lovely sequence of motets. They are all quite well known, but they are a varied and well judged selection. I could imagine a more intense performance of Super flumina Babylonis, but it is nicely balanced and contrasts well with the brighter Exsultate Deo and Sicut Cervus. The sequence finishes with the motet on which Palestrina based the mass.
The CD booklet includes an excellent article by John Milsom and full texts.
This might not be everybody's ideal performance of Palestrina's mass, but it is a perfect example of the English Cathedral sound and beautifully performed.
Robert Hugill, Musicweb-international.com
"The sound is above all things unaffected: clear trebles with a nice breathy edge, altos who blend well with them in the six-voice textures of the mass, tenors and basses who can sometimes sound a little characterless but always fit extremely well ... the details are very clear and excellently balanced ... this record makes one look forward eagerly to further issues from one of our major cathedral choir choirs under a conductor whose approach is so controlled and unostentatious."
David Fallows, Gramophone