the centerpiece—a “Missa Cantantibus organis”—pays
homage to St. Cecilia, both in her liturgical rank and as patroness of music.
But as a parody mass—a reworking of material from Palestrina’s
responsory motet, “Cantantibus organis”—the mass also becomes
a salute both to Palestrina’s musical rank and the cultivation of church
music in Rome. Making these gestures of homage all the more compelling is that
the mass itself is a collective enterprise, written jointly by seven composers
(including Palestrina himself) from the confraternity “Compagnia dei
Musici di Roma.” And while these composers, who include Annabile Stabile,
Francesco Soriano, Giovanni Andrea Dragoni, Prospero Santini Ruggiero
Giovannelli, and Curcio Mancini, have not risen to the modern fame of
Palestrina, they collectively represent the wealth of the Roman musical
establishment towards the close of the sixteenth century. Rounding out the
program are motets from Palestrina’s “Song of Songs” and an
unusually through-composed Magnificat.
Unsurprisingly, the Mass with so many hands involved shows a
variety of textures and styles, ranging from four to twelve voice parts
deployed in both imitative counterpoint, homophonic writing, and antiphonal
dialogues. Much is given to twelve-voice splendor; it is interesting, however,
that the grand-scale of the texture somewhat ironically suggests an economy of
pace, moving through the text without lengthy development—rich but not
expansive. And though the construction of the Mass is varied, the
stylistic idioms are so well established that shifts from composer to composer,
or texture to texture, create no jarring effect.
Ensemble officium brings to this repertory a well-seasoned fluency. The
choral sound has a degree of heft to it, but in Wilfried Rombach’s hands,
it emerges as focused and clear, nicely attuned to the chant-like fluidity of
lines, but also to chordal richness. The result is a very satisfying
performance of Roman repertory from its most golden age.