It is easy in this secularised day and age to think of masses as pure concert pieces. Removed from its context as devotional music, a mass loses much of its function, and what remains is in many ways just pretty music. The Italian male choir Ensemble Odhecaton tried with their performance of Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli to restore something more closely resembling a liturgical context, interspersing a selection of motets by Palestrina and his contemporaries.

Ensemble Odhecaton © Marco Caselli Nirmal
Ensemble Odhecaton
© Marco Caselli Nirmal

Giovanni Perluigi da Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, or Pope Marcellus Mass, was composed, at least according to legend, as a result of the Council of Trent, a mid-16th century council of the Catholic Church. During the Council, objections were raised to the use of polyphony in sacred music, with the claim that the independent lines obscured the words and distracted the listener from devotion. While it wasn’t banned outright, Palestrina’s mass stands as an example of polyphony where the text is clearly audible.

The main piece of the evening, Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli was not sung as one single piece, but instead with the movements spread out to more closely resemble its performance within an actual service. Ensemble Odhecaton did not, however, begin with the mass. Instead, a four-part setting of Sicut cervus, Psalm 42, opened the concert. The first section of the text was sung as plainchant before the Palestrina setting. Throughout the concert, the choir switched between singing one to a part and the entire ensemble singing. The first section of Sicut cervus was sung by a quartet, with impressive clarity, a quality they carried over into the following two sections, which were sung by the whole choir.

The opening Kyrie of the Missa seemed uncertain, especially the very exposed soprano entry. Things soon stabilised, and the following Gloria was a lot more confident, with the altos and sopranos sounding wonderfully free and bright, even though there was some iffy vowel modification at times. Several of the pieces were for double choir, perhaps most notably the 8-part Palestrina setting of Victimae Paschali laudes. For this Easter Sunday sequence, the choir split into two groups, with a quartet singing from the pulpit and the other twelve remaining standing on the floor. The contrast of having one large and smaller group of singers was highly effective.

In general, the singing was good, with the text clearly enunciated, and seemingly an emphasis being put on contrast, both within the pieces and between the pieces themselves. Orlando di Lasso’s Memento peccati tui stood out as a calmly austere, its imitative polyphony so markedly different from Palestrina’s more declamatory style. There were a few instances, especially towards the end, of the intonation being somewhat shaky. The very opening of a few pieces, most notably Giovanni Maria Nanino’s motet In diademate capitis Aaron were a bit all over the place, but thankfully soon stabilised.

Despite some at times questionable intonation and pronunciation, Palestrina’s jubilatory 12-part Laudate Dominum was a fitting end to the concert, a final celebration of God and again a fitting contrast to the more solemn adoration of the precious pieces. For this concert, Ensemble Odhecaton put together an impressively varied programme, showing the span of late Renaissance polyphony, from the declamatory and gentle, to the austere, and finally to the triumphantly jubilant. Putting these pieces in a liturgical context was an interesting idea, and worked very well, transforming the concert into something more than just a collection of sacred motets.