Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Cantores in Ecclesia in Rome

It's true that this post is twelve years late, and I'm personally embarrassed that I had this CD for some years and never really focused on its astonishing magnificence and singular beauty. The CD is Cantores in Ecclesia in Rome, issued by North Pacific Music and available in limited supply at Amazon.

Dean Applegate (bless him, this unsung hero of sacred music!) is the director here. The selections are perfect. We begin with the Kyrie and Gloria from Palestrina's Missa Aeterna Christi munera. Sicut cervus is next. The ever-haunting Super flumina Babylonis is next line.

I love all of this material - every bit by the great Palestrina, who has been a victim of both obscurity in modern times, on the one hand, and overbooking within a small sector an its attendant and inevitable debunking among a sub-sub-sector of micro-experts. So let's let the music speak for itself. We discover from these recordings that Palestrina was an amazing genius. Nothing on this earth is comparable if you are seeking vast vistas of sound like replicate what we imagine eternity with God sounds like.

Moving onward, we have two selections from Byrd's Masses for 4 and 5 voices, plus the nearly impossible motet Vigilate. Brave is the choir that takes on this piece. I considered it for our own schola until taking a closer look and realizing that it would be a year in preparation. Cantores takes on this mighty masterpiece and makes it sound easy.

Then comes the really breathtaking moment of this CD: Os Justi by Bruckner. I've heard this rendering now a dozen times, and every time it causes my jaw to drop. The sheer expansiveness and power of the sustained passage elicit a kind of awe. And then, if possible, the repertoire intensifies with Rachmaninoff's Ave Maria from the Vespers. Now, I don't know if you have ever heard a choir that sounds as big and undulating as the ocean, but that is what we get here. I really don't know how it is possible for any conductor to achieve this sound - this perfection in dynamics over long passages. It sounds angelic, immortal - and so intimidating for this polyphony director that it makes me never to give a downbeat again. This is how a choir should sound. This CD truly settles it in my mind.

Applegate was trained in the English choral tradition with its tenderness, balance, and relaxed tempos, but he adds his own spin to this, encouraging the singers to really sing - don't affect a sound but instead really sing. Many of the singers on this CD were in his children's choirs growing up, and, as a result, are all carefully trained in the Gregorian tradition. Applegate recently retired, but just consider his seen and unseen legacy. This and many other CDs are part of his seen legacy. The unseen are the multitudes of singers in this county who have come up through the ranks in his programs. He has done this for many decades, ignoring the passing trends in Catholic music to stick to what is beautiful and true. It has been a great life of passion, stamina, hard work, and victory for him. I'm grateful that this CD is there as a tribute to all that he has accomplished.

Once you have heard all these stunning elaborations, listen to how they handle this simple Gloria in a live performance at Mass. Here we have the foundational song, the basis of polyphonic greatness. There is a long stretch between this and Vigilate but, in the end, it is made of the same material: piety, discipline, and love.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: