Review: Quire Cleveland sends Palestrina soaring at St. Peter’s Church

The mind reels at the thought of how the music of Giovanni Pierluigi di Palestrina must have sounded in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City in Rome during the 16th century. As the largest church in the world, the space accommodates up to 60,000 visitors, who stand during services.

If Palestrina’s music could work its spell in the vast expanse of St. Peter’s in Rome, it would appear to have no trouble seizing ears in the intimacy of St. Peter’s Church in downtown Cleveland. Quire Cleveland connected with the music and the audience to majestic effect Saturday, when it presented “From Rome to Cleveland: Palestrina at St. Peter’s” under the direction of guest conductor Jameson Marvin.

The church, which opened in 1859, is an ideal venue to hear sacred music of the Renaissance. Sound floats on graceful wings in this space, whose acoustics cast a halo over the singers without placing a veil over details.

Saturday’s program alternated the five sections of Palestrina’s Pope Marcellus Mass with six motets, all written for a cappella chorus. These works are prime examples of the composer’s ability to meld texts of utmost devotional intensity with sublime music that heightens the meaning of the words.

Single-composer concerts run the danger of providing too much music in the same style, but the Quire Cleveland program managed to mesmerize from first note to last, including an encore of “Sicut cervus.” Marvin, former director of choral activities at Harvard University, presided over performances that placed the aching and vibrant beauty of Palestrina’s music in striking focus.

The capacity audience — far larger than expected — didn’t have a hard time discerning the love Marvin feels for Palestrina or the choristers he was guiding. After the opening motet, “O beata et gloriosa trinitas,” the conductor threw an enormous kiss to the singers, and he continued to suggest euphoria whenever Palestrina took big breaths.

Marvin’s impact on the music was captivating. Each section of the mass emerged as a living entity, with heart and soul openly bared. The conductor drew a spectrum of nuances from Palestrina’s polyphonic lines and molded phrases with bold elasticity.

There were moments when Marvin appeared reluctant to let go. He urged the chorus to hold final consonants, as with the word “Amen,” until they disappeared into the night. Throughout the program, Marvin encouraged the ensemble to explore a range of dynamics, from the hushed to something approaching ecstasy.

The Sanctus movement from the Mass was but one example of artists meeting art on the loftiest level. As led by Marvin, Quire Cleveland sustained Palestrina’s glowing phrases as a series of ravishing sacred threads.

Several fine solo voices came to the fore in the motet “Ave maris stella.” But the program shed most light on the stellar qualities of Quire Cleveland, an exemplary ensemble that combines stylistic truth with vocal elegance. It’s unlikely that the chorus at St. Peter’s in 16th-century Rome sang this music any better.