How not to sing polyphony

A warning: headphones recommended, especially for readers with dogs who are prone to howl at passing ambulances. This is the Sistine Chapel Choir’s rendition of the Kyrie from the Missa Papae Marcelli, arguably the finest composition of sacred music in history, by the famed Renaissance composer Giovanni Pierluigi de Palestrina.

This is dreadful, ghastly stuff, and doubly tragic given that it was produced by the group which ought to be a shining jewel of sacred music for the entire world, but which instead has merited the nickname “The Sistine Screamers.” Gone from the performance are the light, plaintive, longing swells of Palestrina’s angelic touch, replaced instead by the kind of ghoulish wailing one would expect of treating every composition as a Puccini piece to be plodded and bludgeoned through ham-handedly. The expressions of the assembled prelates really tell the story: boredom, distraction, irritation, and fidgeting; not a single one among them has that look of rapt transfiguration you would see at a more appropriate performance of the piece. Once again, I find myself pitying poor Msgr. Guido Marini, the long-suffering Papal master of ceremonies, seen to the Pope’s left beginning at around the 1:45 mark. He looks traumatized, like a man praying his way through a hurricane.

A far superior rendition is offered by the Oxford Camerata: