How fair thou art : Biblical Passions by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

The King’s Singers
Signum LC 15723

This selection from the Palestrina’s settings of The Song of Songs  is interspersed by four of the composer’s Marian antiphons. Once you get used to the close recording and the King’s Singers’ distinctive ‘barbershop’ sound, these performances are highly enjoyable, benefiting from the singers’ diffident and yet expressive approach. Just occasionally the very close recording shows the alto voices at a disadvantage, but the singing is generally of a very high quality and the readings of these beautiful pieces is intelligent and sensuous. I take a little bit of exception to the title with its presumably intentionally punning use of the phrase ‘Biblical Passions’ – the Passion has a very specific religious meaning, and its extension to embrace the erotic underpinning of The Song of Songs  makes something of a nonsense of this. It is not entirely clear what context Palestrina’s Song of Songs  settings were intended for, but if – as seems likely – they were for private domestic consumption, then I am sure that the earliest performances would have sounded very much like the present recording. It is interesting to hear the Marian antiphons in the same context – almost certainly written for liturgical choral presentation, they work equally well sung by reduced forces and in a smaller acoustic. Indeed without listening closely to the texts, it would be difficult to differentiate the two repertoires from one another.

D. James Ross