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Tomás Luis DE VICTORIA (1548 - 1611): "Works for six voices"

Nordic Voices

rec: April 15 - 18, 2016 & Jan 23, 2017, Oslo, Ris Kirke
Chandos - CHSA 0402 (© 2017) (55'40")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Ardens est cor meum (tempore Resurrectionis Domini) [2]; Benedicta sit sancta Trinitas (in festo SS. Trinitatis) [1]; Congratulamini mihi (de Beata Vergine) [1]; Nigra sum sed formosa (de Beata Virgine) [2]; O Domine Jesu Christe (Dominica in Ramis Palmarum) [2]; Quem vidistis, pastores (in festo Nativitatis Domini) [1]; Salve Regina (Sabbato in Pentecoste) [1]; Tu es Petrus (in festo Sancti Petri) [1]; Vadam et circuibo civitatem (in planctu Beatae Mariae Virgine) [1]; Vexilla regis 'more hispano' (Sabbato Sancto) [3]; Vidi speciosam (in Assumptione Beatæ Mariæ Virgine) [1]

Sources: [1] Motecta, 1572; [2] Liber Primus qui Missas, Psalmos, ad Magnificat Virginem Dei Matrem Salutationes, 1576; [3] Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae, 1585

Tone Elisabeth Braaten, Ingrid Hanken, soprano; Ebba Rydh, mezzo-soprano; Per Kristian Amundrød, tenor; Frank Havrøy, baritone; Rolf Magne Asser, bass

Tomás Luis de Victoria was one of the last representatives of the stile antico, the polyphonic style which was dominant in what we use to call the renaissance. Musically speaking, Spain and Portugal were isolated from the rest of Europe, and that resulted in Spanish composers being rather conservative. The fact that Victoria went to Rome to study with Palestrina will only have enhanced that tendency. In his composing, Palestrina painstakingly followed the rulings of the Council of Trent, which tried to find answers to some of the criticisms of the Reformation. One of those criticisms was that liturgical music had become increasingly complicated and, as a result, incomprehensible to the faithful. In reply to that the Council asked for clarity of the musical texture and asked composers to pay attention to the text and to avoid anything that would obscure it.

The Counter Reformation also stressed the need for devotion. This is certainly present in Victoria’s motets, where it goes hand in hand with the passion and intensity which is a feature of his music. The latter comes especially to the fore in those motets which are on texts about the Virgin Mary. The veneration of Mary dates from the Middle Ages and was one of the hallmarks of the Christian church, but was given more attention as part of the Counter Reformation. After all, the assessment of the role of the Virgin was one of the differences between the reformers and the Roman Catholic church.

Victoria is not only one of the most important composers of sacred music from renaissance Spain, he was also one of the most productive. His oeuvre includes 20 masses, 18 Magnificats, Lamentations, responsories, antiphons and hymns and a large number of motets. As most of his music was published during his lifetime it found a wide dissemination, including the in New World. Today he is best-known for his music for Holy Week (Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae) and his Officium defunctorum. Those are also specimens of his emotional style.

If an ensemble wants to record a number of motets, how to make a choice? The Nordic Voices did not decide to devote the whole programme to a specific subject, such as the Virgin Mary or motets on texts from the Song of Songs. They rather selected motets which suit the number of singers. All the motets recorded here are for six voices. They are connected to various stages of the ecclesiastical year. The programme opens with Quem vidistis, pastores, a motet for Christmas, about the shepherds having heard about Jesus's birth and having visited the new-born babe. It is followed by Ardens est cor meum, a motet for Easter. The text refers to Mary Magdalene looking for Jesus in the garden. Tu es Petrus is for the feast of St Peter, but its text was a crucial argument for the position of the Pope - another matter of debate between the reformers and the Roman Catholic church. Motets specifically connected to the Virgin Mary are Congratulamini mihi (including the line "from my womb I brought forth God and man") and Salve Regina, one of the Marian antiphons and as such a fixed part of the liturgy during the second half of the ecclesiastical year. Traditionally texts from the Song of Songs were also connected to Mary. Two specimens are included in the programme: Nigra sum sed formosa and Vadam et circuibo civitatem.

Musically speaking there are similarities between several motets, apart from the fact that they are all for six voices. In several motets Victoria now and then splits the voices between a high and a low 'choir', creating a kind of dramaturgy, although there is no hint of any dialogue between different groups of people, not even in Quem vidistis pastores. Several motets are in two parts, Salve Regina even in four. In some of these Victoria holds the piece together by repeating a phrase from the first part in the second, as a kind of refrain. Soterraña Aguirre, in his liner-notes, sees here a connection with the villancico, a popular Spanish song with a religious text in the vernacular. Examples are Tu es Petrus and Vidi speciosam. Aguirre also emphasizes the rhetorical features in Victorias motets. Although there is no connection between text and music as we find in 17th-century music or even in Victoria's own time in the oeuvre of, for instance, Lassus, there are several moments of text illustration. The opening phrase of Vadam et circuibo civitatem ("I will arise and go about the city") includes an eloquent example. First the upper voice sings a rising figure and then it moves up and down, as if moving in a circle. In the second part we find a phrase which opens with the words "quo declinavit" (turned aside) which are set to a descending figure. It is followed a little later by a rising figure on the text "he has gone up into the palm tree". Also notable is the florid setting of the closing phrase from Nigra sum: "the flowers have appeared in our land".

There is much debate on the way Spanish polyphony should be performed, in particular in regard to the use of instruments. Experts don't agree on this matter: some believe that the use of instruments, mainly playing colla voce, was widespread, others think that masses and motets were mainly sung a cappella. Here we hear only the singers of Nordic Voices, and very fine voices these are. I can't remember having heard them before, but this is an ensemble to keep an eye on. One could argue that their style of singing is probably a bit too sober and lacks passion. I certainly would prefer a more intense interpretation, but that is probably also a matter of personal taste. The miking is rather close - probably a bit too close - but it doesn't go at the cost of the ensemble. These voices blend wonderfully well and none of them goes off the rails through an audible vibrato.

There are quite some discs on the market with motets by Victoria. This one is well worth adding to your collection. If you have nothing of Victoria, it is a perfect way to get a good impression of his oeuvre.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

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