musica Dei donum
Tomás Luis DE VICTORIA (1548 - 1611): Missa Gaudeamus
Lay Clerks of Westminster Cathedrala; Thomas Wilson, organb
Dir: Matthew Martin
rec: July 7 - 10, 2008, London, Westminster Cathedral
Hyperion - CDA67748 (© 2010) (73'20")
Girolamo FRESCOBALDI (1583-1643):
Missa della Apostoli :
Canzon dopo l'Epistolab;
Missa della Madonna :
Recercar con obligo di cantar la quinta parte senza toccarlaab;
Recercar dopo il Credob;
Toccata avanti la Messab;
Assumpta est Maria in caelum, alleluiaa;
Assumpta est Maria, offertorya;
Gaudeamus omnes, introita;
Optimam partem elegit sibi Maria, communiona;
Propter veritatem, graduala;
Tomás Luis DE VICTORIA:
Vidi speciosamab 
 Tomás Luis da Victoria, Motecta, 1572;
 Girolamo Frescobaldi, Fiori Musicali, 1635)
David Allsopp, Ian Aitkenhead, Kevin Beckett, Stephen Burrows, David Gould, David Martin, Matthew Venner, alto;
Jonathan Bungard, David Knight, Clifford Lister, Nicholay Keay, Robert Watson, tenor;
Stephen Alder, Michael Bundy, Colin Campbell, Julian Empett, William Grant, David Soar, Graham Titus, bass
A considerable part of what we today call 'early music' consists of religious music, mostly written for liturgical use. And although parts of this large repertoire are still performed during services, when it is recorded on disc it is hardly ever presented in its proper liturgical context. That is understandable as elements of the liturgy return in almost every service, and it doesn't make much sense to record them over and over again. But even so, performances of liturgical music without its context remain unsatisfying.
Sometimes attempts are made to reconstruct, as it were, a liturgical event. They are mostly - at least partly - speculative, as there are always elements of a liturgical event which can't be reconstructed because of a lack of trustworthy information. But one gets at least some idea of how music was originally used. That is also the case here, even though this performance is no 'liturgical reconstruction', as Jon Dixon states in the programme notes. "This festive celebration of Mass is intended not as a reconstruction of a known occasion in the early seventeenth century, but as a sort of musical offering illustrating the complex liturgical structures becoming available in a period when the resources for the enrichment of the liturgy were growing steadily."
The core of this disc is the Missa Gaudeamus for 6 voices by Tomás Luis de Victoria. It is based on a motet by one of his greatest predecessors in the rich polyphonic tradition of Spain, Cristóbal de Morales, Jubilate omnis terra which was composed in 1538. In the motet and the mass both composers make use of the opening phrase of the introit Gaudeamus omnes. The Ordinary of the Mass are the usual sections: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei. They are embedded in a Mass for the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which falls on August 15. That this is no liturgical reconstruction is also indicated by the choice of organ works by Girolamo Frescobaldi who was from a later generation than Victoria. It is questionable whether Victoria's music was still used in his time.
The liturgy opens with a Toccata avanti la Messa by Frescobaldi, then we hear the Introit 'Gaudeamus omnes' which is sung in plainchant. Then we have Kyrie and Gloria by Victoria, followed by Collect, Epistle, Gradual and Alleluia in plainchant, and a Canzon dopo l'Epistola by Frescobaldi. Next follows the Gospel, Victoria's Gloria, and then another piece by Frescobaldi, a Recercar dopo il Credo. The Offertory 'Assumpta est Maria' is sung in plainchant, followed by the first part of Victoria's 6-part motet Vidi speciosam. After the Preface we hear Sanctus and Benedictus from the Missa Gaudeamus, and, after the Pater noster, the Agnus Dei. The Communion 'Optimam partem elegit sibi Maria', sung in plainchant, is followed by the second part of Victoria's motet Vidi speciosam: Quae est ista. The Post-communion is again sung in plainchant and the liturgy closes with Frescobaldi's Recercar con obligo di cantar la quinta parte senza toccarla. This is a piece in which the fifth part is to be sung, and here it is sung on the text Frescobaldi himself proposes: "Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis".
Even though this is no historical reconstruction it is very instructive to hear Victoria's mass as part of a liturgy. The exact structure of that liturgy is explained in the liner notes. Strangely enough the booklet doesn't tell from which of Frescobaldi's three masses the organ pieces are taken; I have added that in the tracklist. There is also no mentioning of the source of the plainchant, so I think it is safe to say that they are not taken from some historical source of liturgical music.
The Choir of Westminster Cathedral has a wide experience in performing sacred music from the Spanish renaissance, as the Hyperion catalogue shows. The former Master of Music George Malcolm already recorded music by Victoria in the 1960's. More recently David Hill, James O'Donnell and Martin Baker have continued this tradition. The strong sound of the choir and the engaging style of singing lead to exciting interpretations of this repertoire. I have the impression that the fact that Westminster Cathedral is part of the Roman Catholic church also helps to create really convincing performances of music which was intended to be sung during Roman Catholic services. The members of the choir know what offertories, graduals, alleluias etc are all about.
This recording is different in that we hear only the lay clerks, that is to say the adult singers of the choir, whereas in most recordings we hear also the choristers (the trebles). And that has some effect on the sound of the choir in that in this recording one notices the vibrato of in particular the tenors and basses. Not in an operatic way, but clearly audible nevertheless, and that is definitely not appropriate in this kind of music. It also effects the performance of the plainchant, which is not as bright and clear as it should be. The organ pieces are played well - although some seems to be abridged -, and the organ is tuned in ¼ comma meantone, but one still misses the spicy sound of a 17th-century Italian organ. The organ is also used in the motet Vidi speciosam. The liner notes don't explain why only here, and not also in the mass.
Despite my criticism I welcome this disc as it brings liturgical music in an appropriate context which hopefully increases the understanding of the way sacred music was used in the time of its creation. And Victoria's music is great, of course, and this mass is no exception.
Johan van Veen (© 2010)