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In the 15th and 16th centuries it was a common practice for choral composers to write sacred works based on secular melodies. ‘L’Homme armé’ was a popular French song of the early 1400s that found its way into many mass settings, not least those of Josquin, Morales and Tinctoris. Palestrina was merely following in the footsteps of his illustrious forbears when he wrote his masses on the theme that were published in 1570 and 1582. The melody appears in every part of the mass, either in an immediately recognizable form or elongated in a cantus firmus.

We’re now on the sixth disc of Harry Christophers and the Sixteen’s survey of Palestrina’s works. Each disc centres on a single mass setting, and in this case the disc also includes texts from the Song of Songs, and various motets and offertories exploring themes of despair, loneliness and repentance. The entire series doesn’t seek to cover every note Palestrina wrote – in the spirit of John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach Cantata cycle – because there’s simply too much material, but we’re grateful for what has made it onto disc.

The sound of the Sixteen on this disc is a warm wash, with a precise balancing of the different parts that gives the texture a pleasing clarity. Each contrapuntal point of imitation is marked with appropriate characterization, and there is a spacious generosity to the music that befits these masterworks.

Nicholas Bown Read the full review on Agora Classica


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