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Tomás Luis DE VICTORIA (1548 - 1611): "18" (Tenebrae Responsoria)

Musica Ficta
Dir: Raúl Mallavibarrena

rec: March 2009 (live), Ronda (Málaga), convent Los Descalzos Viejos
Enchiriadis - EN2029 (© 2010) (58'00")

(Sources: Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae, 1585)

María Eugenia Boix, Agnieszka Grzywacz, soprano; Gabriel Díaz, Luis Badosa, alto; José Pizarro, Diego Blázquez, tenor; Luis Vicente, Bart Vandewege, bass

Tomás Luis de Victoria is the most important composer of religious music in Spain from the end of the 16th century. He was one of the last representatives alongside Cristóbal de Morales and Francisco Guerrero of an impressive tradition of sacred polyphony. His whole oeuvre consists of religious music: masses and motets, settings of the Magnificat and Lamentations, as well as antiphons, responsories and hymns. Two of his works are considered real monuments in the history of music: his Officium defunctorum of 1605, including a setting of the Requiem Mass, and his complete liturgy for Holy Week.

This Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae, which was printed in 1585 in Rome, contains the music for the principal parts of the Office of Matins for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, and some music for the first Sunday of Holy Week, Palm Sunday. In addition there are some motets without a strict liturgical function, settings of the Miserere and the Benedictus which are to be sung in the Office of Lauds of all three days, and the improperia for Good Friday. The collection is completed by two Passions, one after St Matthew, to be sung on Palm Sunday, the second after St John, for Good Friday.

The complete collection - although the two Passions have been abridged - has been recorded by La Colombina on Glossa. That recording is highly recommendable to those who have a more than average interest in this repertoire. Others may be satisfied with excerpts, and in particular the 18 Tenebrae Responsories are often recorded. Peter Philips has recorded them with his Tallis Scholars, Philippe Herreweghe with the Collegium Vocale Gent and David Hill with the Choir of Westminster Cathedral, to mention just a few.

The heart of the Office for Holy Week are the Lamentations and the Responsories. The Lamentations of Jeremiah bemoan the destruction of Jerusalem and were used as metaphors for the passion and death of Christ. The Responsories deal more directly with this subject. Some refer to texts from those chapters in the Gospels which report about Jesus' Passion. The structure of the responsories is ABCB: first the two halves of the responsory are sung (AB), then the verse (C), which is followed by a repeat of the second half of the responsory (B). According to the liner notes "it is very common to extend six of them with a final AB, following the liturgical pattern". That is also the case here: in every third Responsory the repetition of the second half is followed by a repeat of the whole responsory.

The Responsories are mostly on free poetic texts, sometimes put into the mouth of Jesus, whereas the verses are set to texts from the Bible. As an example I quote the first responsory, Amicus meus: "The sign by which my friend betrayed me was a kiss: he whom I shall kiss, that is he: hold me fast. He who committed murder by a kiss gave this wicked sign. The unhappy wretch repaid the price of blood and in the end hanged himself. Verse: It had been better for that man if he had never been born." The verse quotes St Matthew 26, vs 50.

The Responsories are divided over the three days: every day three Responsories are sung during the second and the third nocturne respectively. Victoria's settings show a clear pattern as far as the scoring is concerned. All responsories are for four voices, the verses for three, except in Amicus meus where the verse is for two voices. The first and third responsories are for soprano, alto, tenor and bass, the second for two sopranos, alto and tenor.

Victoria's style is close to that of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina who was the leading composer in Rome when Victoria first studied and then worked there from 1565 to 1585. But his music is more emotional than Palestrina's and more influenced by contemporary madrigals as his treatment of the text shows. To give just one example of text illustration: in Astiterunt reges Victoria uses homophony to depict the unity of kings and princes which is expressed in the first verse of Psalm 2: "The kings of the earth stood up, and the princes joined together".

This performance adds some of its own to this kind of expression. Tenebrae factae sunt is performed by low voices: "There was darkness when the Jews crucified Jesus". That is also the case in Aestimatus sum: "I am counted among those that go down to the depths". And the verse says: "They have laid me in the lower pit, in darkness, and in the shadow of death". This is not required by the composer, and it is an interesting matter of debate whether this low scoring is part of the interpretational freedom. But it is characteristic of this performance which is quite dramatic. In particular the responsories for Maundy Thursday (Feria V) are sung at rather high speed, and with a wide dynamic range. Later on the performance is more introverted, which reflects the content of the texts and Victoria's settings of them. That is in particular the case in the Responsories for Holy Saturday, with very emotional pieces like O vos omnes and Ecce quomodo moritur.

The performances by Musica Ficta are generally satisfying and often quite moving. The singers have nice voices, and only sometimes I was a little disturbed by the slight vibrato from the sopranos now and then. I am not sure, though, whether this is going to be my favourite recording. Apart from the complete version by La Colombina I have mentioned before I have always been very fond of the performance of the Westminster Cathedral Choir, also because a performance with only male voices is closer to the performance practice in Victoria's days than with female singers for the top lines like here. That said, this recording can be recommended as an interesting and mostly convincing view on Victoria's masterpieces.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

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