Palestrina Mass for Pentecost and Motets
Since its foundation in Tudor times by Cardinal Wolsey, the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford has enjoyed a unique reputation. In 1526 John Taverner, the great Tudor composer, became its first organist and Master of Choristers.
It has had a long line of distingushed organists as it's directors including, in more recent times , Sir William Harris and Simon Preston. The Choir is world renowned and tours regularly abroad. Stephen Darlington has been the Director of the Choir since 1985.
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.
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.
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 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