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GRAMOPHONE (07/2021)
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Reviewer: Fabrice Fitch

Beauty Farm have already several recordings to their name, though nothing, I think, as late as Palestrina. Here, the all male, one-voice-to-a-part vocal group tackle an uncontested warhorse of Renaissance polyphony in a live recording, interspersing it with plainsong hymns. This is an odd decision. The total duration is very slim for a standard-issue CD of repertoire that’s out of copyright, and on most previous recordings the ensemble presented Mass cycles in pairs. (To be fair, 48 minutes would be equally meagre rations for the first half of a concert.)

Faced with a polished, insightful account of this much-loved work, that would be a mere quibble, but this account is neither. The recorded sound is murky and lacks clarity, and some of the live artefacts are distracting. In part (but not only) due to the recording, the ensemble is uneven and unbalanced: the top voice in particular is beset with intonation problems and seems almost to drop out at times. In longer-texted movements Palestrina’s syllabic approach helps things along, but in the melismatic ones the lack of polish extends to overall shape and musical details. The performance audibly flags towards the end, the Sanctus illustrating all the issues mentioned.

The approach to tempo, which is relatively brisk, is one I would broadly welcome, but otherwise the apparent lack of artistic direction is baffling. So are the booklet notes, which rehash the myth of Palestrina as the ‘saviour of polyphony’ (among other things). In what is a genuinely crowded field, this is a non-starter.

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