A few months ago G. Walker Woodworth conducted a performance of Handel's Messiab that was intended to sound as it would in Handel's own day. The results were rather tepid. But his latest venture in archaism a quite mother story.
In a new long-playing release by Cambridge Records (CRC 101) he leads the Harvard Glee club in seven pieces of fifteenth and sixteenth century church music. Once again he attempts to reproduce the original performance practices. Instead of the modern ideal of polished clarity, he stresses the vague outlines of the phrases. Instead of using an acoustically perfect hall, he makes the recordings in the Busch-Reisinger Museum, whose stone walls most nearly duplicate the resonance of Renaisance churches. But these are not more pedantic touches. While there is very little in a Handel oratorio that requires an eighteenth century type performance, the ethereal, evasive quality of earlier religious music is completely lost if subjected to modernization.
Although Palestrina's Supplicationes receives top billing on the record, I was most impressed by Byrd's Iustorum Animae. Written for the Feast of All Saints, it was arranged for male voices by Harvard's Professor A. T. Davison. Here is an excellent union of sound and meaning, culminating with the word "mortis," in complete relaxation and immobility. The Glee Club handles the interlocking phrases and constantly shifting melodic lines so skillfully that the general effect is coherent and logical.
The only vernacular piece in the collection is an anonymous Italian laude, O Maria, Diam Stella, a work more notable for its reverent dignity than for any intrinsic musical merit. After a rather sluggish rendition of Lassus' Tibi Laus, Tibi Gloria comes victoria's beautiful Miserere Mei. The Glee club, showing full comprehension of the text, sings expressively, but Woodworth never permits the performance to become over-emotional. The perfect enunciation and balance of the group illuminate each word.
Palestrina is represented by the aforementioned Supplicationes (a litany to the Virgin with each stanza punctuated with a "Kyrie") and by Confitemini Domino, based on the 106th Psalm. Both are works of quiet persuasiveness and the voices seldom rise above piano. Variations or emotional intensity are expressed by slight dynamic alterations and by changes in the intervals between voices.
With its obscure tempi, overlapping phrases, and long, weaving melodies, music of this kind demands a degree of concentration far greater than it usually receives. Next to singing it, there is no better way to become acquainted with the music than to own a fine recording that can be played over and over again in the privacy of one's room. Such a recording is now available.