In his lifetime, which extended from about 1525 until 1594, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina occupied a niche apart from other composers, the purity of his counterpoint suggesting musical piety that found favor among church fathers. He worked as music director for several popes, beginning with Julius II, who commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling, beneath which Palestrina would often lead his singers. The composer’s output includes at least 104 Mass settings, of which the five-voiced Missa O Magnum Misterium remains unaccountably obscure. The superb choral group The Sixteen, directed by Harry Christophers, includes it in the fourth volume of its recorded exploration of Palestrina, an installment devoted mostly to music for the Christmas season. This Mass is a parody of an earlier (and more famous) Palestrina motet setting of the O Magnum Mysterium text. Christophers already included that motet in the second volume of this series, but it would have made sense to duplicate it here in proximity to the Mass. Anyway, the performances are exquisite throughout, perhaps reaching their summits in a glorious double-choir setting of the antiphon Ave regina caelorum and finely shaded renditions of three of the composer’s settings from the erotic Song of Songs, which the church sanctioned for performance as long as people understood the poems were aimed at the Virgin Mary rather than at more attainable women.
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