Monday, 7 September 2015

Palestrina - Masses - Vartolo

Rating: 3/5

Not the best Palestrina recordings

Both the Palestrina discs recorded by Vartolo and his ensemble in the mid 1990s are quite decent interpretations in many ways, but for me they lack the real depth and musicality needed to really make Palestrina's music shine.

The music itself is lovely, of course.  Palestrina was one of the great masters of polyphony and these works are some of his finest.  These recordings do have their merits and some very beautiful moments, I think.  Technically the singers are very good, with generally excellent intonation and thoughtful phrasing.  The countertenor taking the top lines means a lower, more Flemish pitch which lends a lovely resonance to the sound, helped by some fine, firm basses.  However, I find the very resonant acoustic muddies the sound rather too much sometimes, balance of the voices is variable so that the polyphonic lines don't always interact as they should, and a little too much vibrato on occasions interferes with the clarity of the harmonies.  Palestrina does need genuine engagement with the text being sung to give it the depth and variation to maintain interest over a whole disc, and I don't really find that here so the whole thing begins to sound pleasant but a bit samey at times.

This isn't a bad recording by any means and I don't want to be too critical, but for me it doesn't quite succeed in bringing Palestrina's lovely music to life.  There are some quiet superb Palestrina recordings available now at very reasonable prices and I would recommend them well before this.  Two fine examples are Phillippe Herreweghe's  wonderful recording of Missa Viri Galilaei and The Tallis Scholars Sing Palestrina, which gives you four wonderful masses in outstanding performance.


  1. Dare I disagree? Or at least only partly agree...

    It's certainly true that these are not central Palestrina recordings, nor a good place to start. But, as a deliberately unorthodox approach they are magnificent. It seems to me that these recordings are a very successful, intriguing, even exciting attempt to put Palestrina in the context of the 'seconda prattica' (or even the 'baroque'), by emphasising the individuality of the vocal lines & invest them with 'feeling'; rather than a failed attempt at 'purist' polyphony of the '16th century' style of which the Tallis Scholars are emblematic.

    Consequently, a fascinatingly different view of Palestrina, seen from the lens of the musical world around the time of, or shortly after, his death.

    Certainly not the way to get to know Palestrina; but definitely worth engaging with, as a perception of how the younger generation might have performed his work as the new century began.


    1. Interesting! I see what you mean...but frankly, I still don't like it much. :o) I stand by my comments, I think. I make no pretence at any sort of expertise or authority about this, and perhaps it's too much Tallis Scholars and others, but I think that to really shine, polyphony needs a balance and blend which is too often absent here. I'm glad you like it, though; I think it's great that we all have our different takes and preferences on music.