The Palestrina Mass was recorded twice under George Guest, both versions still available, so this arrangement for women’s voices may be superfluous. While little is spelled out in the notes, we are told that the bass voice is transposed up an octave, the harmony being completed by the continuo’s playing at the original pitch. The effect is light, lovely, beautifully rendered by six women on the four vocal parts, but the full sonority of the polyphonic texture is missing. The notes indicate that this manner of performance was normal in convents of the 16th century, the locale recreated here.
The Mass is only part of this program, 22 minutes of a very full disc. The rest consists of chant and polyphonic motets selected to fit the events in a novel, Sacred Hearts, by Sarah Dunant. It is set in a convent in Ferrara in 1570, beginning with the feast of St. Agnes (January 21) and ending with Holy Week and Easter. Palestrina’s Mass fits the plot perfectly, for it is based on his own motet, which, in turn, is a parody of the seventh-mode antiphon for the Common of Virgins (there is also an eighth-mode chant antiphon on the same text). The motets of Palestrina and Rore were included because both composers had connections with the court of Ferrara. (We think of Palestrina in Rome, but in the 1560s he directed concerts at Cardinal Ippolito d’Este’s famous villa in Tivoli, near Rome.) The Lamentations for Holy Saturday are the set superbly recorded by Simon Ravens (25:6). The most interesting chant is the sequence for St. Agnes. Altogether, this is an offbeat program of considerable interest, not exactly comparable to competitive versions of the music.