- Record Review - BBC Radio 3 - ROMA AETERNA

09.04.16
New York Polyphony
BBC Radio 3

Andrew McGregor (AM): ...Hannah French has been investigating them all and she begins with 16th century Rome from 21st century New York.

audio - Gloria - Victoria

AM: The Gloria from Victoria's Missa O quam gloriosum for four voices taken utterly literally by New York Polyphony, four male voices-- countertenor down to bass. We'll get the sound in a moment, but Hannah French the album title Roma Aeterna-- explain the linking narrative between the pieces.

Hannah French (HF): It's a lovely one. We've got three composers: Guerrero, Palestrina and Victoria, and this is a great narrative in which Guerrero visited Rome and his works were known in Europe and Latin America as well, but he was a visitor there in 1581. And Palestrina who is named after the hill town of Palestrina just outside Rome and he's known for his high profile career in Rome. And then Victoria, our most celebrated Spanish composer of his age, of course. He was sent to Rome as soon as his voice broke and then went on to having numerous prestigious positions there, so, um, yeah, it's a real success story of three well-respected composers working in Rome.

AM: And the opener Francisco Guerrero's Regina caeli sets up the sound, you get these four voices in intricate polyphony, and then the almost austere conservatism of Palestrina afterwards which we will hear a little bit later actually. But what about the voices, the style-- where does it fit for you in terms of the sound they actually make, New York Polyphony?

HF: Yeah, it's more the pure sound of Stile Antico than the guts of Tenebrae, I suppose. But there's real clarity there and there's real pizzazz within that austereness. They have a great blend. I mean, I think perhaps it's a little bit top heavy, the countertenor is quite prominent, quite dominant but the blend is generally quite fantastic.

AM: It's a little bit sort of slightly Kings' Singers showbiz, meaning that in an utterly complimentary way, and yet I was thinking it's a little bit more like Tallis Scholars doing Mouton male voices. I kept being reminded of classic Pro cantione antiqua.

HF: Right, and actually, interestingly, I started to think how many one-to-a-part Missa Papae Marcelli do we have?  And, yeah, the Kings' Singers have just the Sanctus from them, and then Pro cantione antiqua-- they're really the only other one-to-a-part and even their earliest is 9 voices, so not six anyway. So 2-to-a-part Tallis Scholars their live in Rome 1994 recording, but other than that this is welcome addition to real one-to-a-part sound.

AM: And it is very, very beautiful. Put it on the Guerrero opening track and I just felt myself sort of relaxing and smiling straight away. There's something blissfully confident and beautiful about the blend as you say. But also the flexibility, the feeling of a sort of instinctive musicality. There's no sense of barlines which you sometimes get with a conductorless ensemble. They way they sped up for the Cum sancto spiritu section of what we just heard.

HF: Yes, it's very fluid and you can tell that there's a real kind of intimacy and a real ensemble direction. They're all on the same page.

AM: And the recording quality is a big part of the feel. Isn't it? This is St. Cecilia Cathedral in Omaha in the USA and it's a very wet sound. But it needs to be, doesn't it, because it's just four voices.

HF: Well, exactly. And in that sense, you don't miss a bigger choir because they have this full sound and it really fills your ears.

AM: Right, we heard their Victoria. We've gotta hear the Palestrina as well. Uh, 6 voices, not 4-- they have some friends on board.

HF: They do.

AM: And why this movement? What are we going to hear?

HF: Well, they go into quite a bit of detail about the Missa Papae Marcelli in their notes, they admit that it's the best known of Palestrina's works. And actually it's an interesting call because their dedication to innovative programming and their usual focus on rare and rediscovered Renaissance and medieval works are what they're really known for. And actually this is quite a popular program by contrast with that. But they manage to bring you twists to it each time. And with the Missa Papae marcelli they go into the detail that perhaps yes it was the work that single-handedly saved ecclesiastical polyphony from being banned in the wake of changes brought about by Counter-Reformation. But then they say that perhaps it was composed earlier for the election of Pope Marcellus the 2nd. But the qualities that the Council of Trent required are here in spades and that's what they really really punch through to us: there's the elegant simplicity, there's the clarity of the text, there's the lack of polyphony obviously in the writing, and that's what they really bring to us. They include the plainchant propers for easter day which is a nice kind of addition to it and it gives a sense of occasion as well, Yeah, we're going to hear the Gloria to conclude this segment.

audio - Gloria - Palestrina

AM: That's a nice acoustic, isn't it? The Gloria from Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli-- a work whose contrapuntal severity relatively speaking somehow suits this one voice per part approach, I think. New York Polyphony, augmented from its core 4 voices to 6. And Hannah, while this approach obviously works on its own terms and is very beautiful, does it pall after a while, did you find that this was actually something that you were comfortable listening to for the duration of the album?

HF: Yeah, I did, I think it has the legs to last through to the end of the CD. I mean, you know there's real ping in there, and there's a real, you know we talked about the clarity of the writing, but there's clarity in the direction of the lines when there's one to a part. And however authentic or not authentic that might be, who cares? It really works and, you know, it captures your imagination.

AM: But it isn't authentic, it's four male voices singing the Missa Papae Marcelli, but it's beautiful, and beautifully recorded as well. I really enjoyed this. Roma Aeterna from New York Polyphony. It's a hybrid SACD from BIS. 

Listen to the audio here