Notes and Editorial Reviews
Martin Baker, dir; Westminster Cathedral Ch
HYPERION 67610 (79:16
Text and Translation)
Tenebrae, or “darkness,” was the special name given to the Office of Matins for the last three days of Holy Week (just before Easter). Matins consisted of three nocturns, each made up of three psalms with antiphons and three lessons with responsories. The lessons of the first nocturn each night were taken from the Book of Lamentations (formerly attributed to Jeremiah)
in the Old Testament. Jeremiah’s expression of sorrow for the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. was an allegory of the sinner’s sorrow for the misdeeds that were redeemed by the death of Christ. The Lamentation chant was more elaborate than the usual lesson tone, and composers of the Renaissance and Baroque eras provided even more elaborate settings, since these lengthy services drew the participation of the faithful who were under no obligation to attend.
Palestrina’s familiar Book 3 of Lamentations for Tenebrae has been recorded several times. Two previous complete sets were directed by Simon Ravens (21:6, 23:6, 25:6) and Olivier Opdebeeck (Champeaux CSM 0004, formerly Jade C 114). Ravens added the appropriate chant responsory to each Lamentation and filled out the three discs with related works for Tenebrae. Opdebeeck also added the responsories, fitting the music on two discs with fewer related works. Now Baker gives us just the nine Lamentations on a single disc, a format that matches Bruno Turner’s recording of a different collection, Palestrina’s Lamentations, Book 4 (now in Brilliant set 99711).
As it happens, Baker’s tempos are midway between the slower Ravens and the faster Opdebeeck, not that any of the three are unacceptable. Unlike Opdebeeck’s choir of mixed voices and Ravens’s adult male voices, Baker has boys and men (with both boys and countertenors on the alto line), the complement that Palestrina wrote for. Consequently he uses the same pitch as Opdebeeck, while Ravens takes the pitch down two full tones. Hence the choice among the three sets of Lamentations requires some judgment, though all three sets repay serious comparison, for each of the three choirs brings this masterly music to life.
That may be due to Palestrina’s approach to the liturgy. Other composers sought to dramatize the texts long attributed to Jeremiah, but Palestrina’s settings are the most restrained of any. The performances elicit from the congregation only meditation on the mystery of salvation, an exercise that required hearers to apply the Old Testament texts to their own condition. As the fall of Jerusalem was a punishment for sin, so sinful Christians needed the redemption wrought by the Savior’s death on the Cross. Just as the liturgical text added to each excerpt the concluding “Jerusalem, return to the Lord your God,” so the sinner heard the call to repentance. After three nights of these reflections, the meaning of Easter became clearer, the celebration more genuine.
While all three sets are beautifully executed, the choice may come down to a set of Lamentations in liturgical context (the earlier two) or alone (Baker). Baker’s choir has a more brilliant tone than the others, while Opdebeeck has the largest choir and Ravens the smallest. Ravens’s chant responsories are sung chorally from an edition of Palestrina’s era, while Opdebeeck’s Hervé Lamy is an excellent chant interpreter but as a soloist not quite appropriate for the task. The new disc of Book 3 makes a fine companion to Pro Cantione Antiqua’s disc of Book 4, and many will want to settle for the Lamentations alone. On that basis, this is highly recommended.
FANFARE: J. F. Weber
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