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

stile antico

rec: Feb 13 - 15, 2017, London, All Hallows' Church, Gospel Oak
Harmonia mundi - HMM 902272 (© 2018) (71'21")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

plainchant: Incipit lamentatione Jeremiae Prophetae; De lamentatione Jeremiae Prophetae (2 settings); Tomás Luis DE VICTORIA: O Domine Jesu Christe a 6 [1]; Responsoria ad Matutinum a 4 [2]

Sources: Victoria, [1] Liber primus: qui missas, psalmos, Magnificat ... aliaque complectitur, 1576; [2] Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae, 1585

Helen Ashby, Kate Ashby, Rebecca Hickey, soprano; Emma Ashby, Eleanor Harries, Katie Schofield, contralto; Ross Buddie, Andrew Griffiths, Thomas Kelly, tenor; Will Dawes, Thomas Flint, Matthew O'Donovan, bass
with: Benedict Himas, tenor; Simon Gallear, 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 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, printed in 1585 in Rome, comprises 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 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.

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 (Responsoria ad Matutinum) 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 of an earlier recording, "it is very common to extend six of them with a final AB, following the liturgical pattern". That practice is omitted in this recording by stile antico.

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".

Considering the number of recordings one wonders why stile antico felt the need to add its interpretation. But over the years I have learnt that this is almost never a consideration of performers. I would have liked to welcome this recording as I have often heard great things from this ensemble, which is certainly one of the best in the business. However, I am not that enthusiastic about stile antico's interpretation.

There is nothing wrong with the singing, but I feel that the rather straightforward approach to these Responsories misses the mark. I already referred to the emotion in Victoria's music. And exactly that is underexposed here. Victoria's music is more than just beautiful, but these performances lack the depth of expression which is a feature of his Tenebrae Responsories.

Matthew O'Donovan, in his liner-notes, states that "it is a longstanding performance tradition that some or all of the upper-voice responsories are sung instead by lower voices. In the interest of both variety and characterisation of the text, we have opted to do this in Tenebrae factae sunt and Aestimatus sum." This tradition does not go back to any indication by the composer, and therefore it would be nice if performers could free themselves from what tradition has added and return to what the composer intended.

The transposition is partly justified by the need for variety. That is also the reason for the inclusion of plainchant. "[The] unbroken use of the same mode and similar three- and four-part textures throughout all eighteen responsories can at times feel too much to take in one sitting. In order to counteract this, we have interspersed excerpts from the Lamentations readings (from the first nocturn of each day), sung to a plainchant setting, at the end of each day's worth of responsories". I have no problems with the insertion of plainchant as such, and the placement between the cycles for each of the three days makes sense. However, the argument for it seems nonsense to me. Do the performers really believe in the power of the music they have selected to sing?

Maybe we have to conclude that there would have been no need for variety if the performance had explored the emotional depth of Victoria's Responsories to the full.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

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