musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Tomás Luis DE VICTORIA (1548 - 1611): "Canticum Nativitatis Domini"

L'Almodí Cor de Cambra; Capella de Ministrers
Dir: Carles Magraner

rec: Dec 18 - 20, 2010, Requena (Valencia), Iglesia de Santa Maria
Licanus - 1130 (© 2011) (60'04")
Liner-notes: E/F/S
Cover & track-list

Alma redemptoris mater a 8 [1]; Ave Maria a 4 (attr); Ave Maria a 8 [1]; Congratulamini mihi a 6 [1]; Ecce Dominus veniet a 5 [1]; Gaude, Maria virgo a 5 [1]; Hostis Herodes impie a 4 [3]; Magi viderunt stellam a 4 [1]; Ne timeas Maria a 4 [1]; O magnum mysterium a 4 [1]; O regem caeli a 4 [1]; Quam pulchri sunt a 4 [1]; Quem vidistis, pastores? a 6 [1]

Sources: [1] Motecta, 1572; [2] Cantica Beatae Virginis vulgo Magnificat, una cum 4 antiphonis Beatae Virginis per annum, 1581; [3] Hymni totius anni secundum sanctae romanae ecclesiae consuetudinem, una cum 4 psalmis, pro praecipuis festivitatibus, 1581

Erika Escribá-Astaburuaga, Pilar Esteban, soprano; David Sagastume, alto; Lambert Climent, Francisco Fernández-Rueda, tenor; Tomás Maxé, bass; David Antich, recorder; Paco Rubio, cornett; Elias Hernandis, David García, sackbut; Katharina Bäuml, shawm, dulcian; Ignasi Jordà, organ

Of all the composers of the Spanish renaissance Tomás Luis de Victoria is the best-known and the most frequently performed and recorded. There are various ways to perform his music. One can simply present a number of motets, possibly with a common theme. Another way is to include them in a kind of liturgical reconstruction, like Albert Recasens recorded music for Easter (to be reviewed later). The present disc is of the first kind: we get here music for Christmastide at random order. Many pieces are connected to the veneration of the Virgin Mary which was particularly important to Victoria, as the whole of his oeuvre shows. A large part of the programme on this disc bears witness to that.

It begins with a setting of the Ave Maria, which is attributed to Victoria, and closes with one of his most famous works, the 8-part setting for two choirs of the same text. The words of Congratulamini mihi are put into Mary's mouth: "Congratulate me, all you who love the Lord: for, being but small, I pleased the Most High, and from my womb was born God and man. Alleluia". This is followed by the 8-part Marian antiphon Alma redemptoris mater. Quam pulchri sunt is on a text from the Song of Songs, the story of the love between a man and a woman. In the traditional interpretation of this book from the Bible the character of the woman is identified with the Virgin Mary.

No timeas Maria is a biblical text about the annunciation of Jesus' birth: "Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found favour with the Lord". O magnum mysterium is a piece for the feast of the circumcision of Jesus. The second part is an invocation of Mary: "O blessed Virgin, whose womb hath merited to bear the Lord Jesus Christ". Gaude Maria virgo is another Marian motet: "Rejoice, Virgin Mary, thou alone hast destroyed all the heresies in the entire world".

The programme also includes some pieces which have no connection to the veneration of Mary. Ecce Dominus veniet is for Advent: "Behold, the Lord cometh, and all his saints with him". O Regem caeli is one of a small number of pieces for "equal voices", which means "trebles"; most of them - as here - are sung in the traditional line-up of SATB. It is about Jesus, called "King of Heaven", "Saviour" and "Christ the Lord", lying in a manger. Quem vidistis pastores addressed the shepherds who have been told about Jesus' birth: "Whom did you see, shepherds?" Two motets are for Epiphany: Magi viderunt stellam is about the wise men, offering gifts to the new-born, whereas Hostis Herodes impie addresses "ungodly Herodes, enemy", who fears Christ's coming.

This disc is particularly interesting in regard to performance practice. In the interpretation of this selection of pieces by Victoria It was Carles Magraner's purpose to "offer readings that attempt to reflect as far as possible the historical and musical cadre of their composition. To do so, the Valencian conductor chooses a mixed vocal and instrumental ensemble, alternating choir and soloists with the instruments doubling the voices, making diminutions and including instrumental versions", Ignacio Deleyto Alcalá writes in the liner-notes. One of the main issues in the debate about the performance of Spanish polyphony is the role of the ministriles (minstrels).

This is the name of a group of instrumentalists, playing mostly wind instruments such as cornetts, shawms, sackbuts and dulcians. They participated in liturgical offices, but also in processions and various solemn ceremonies. There are different views on their precise role in the liturgy. Alcalá underlines that there is no one specific practice: "[Neither] had all the churches and cathedrals the same amount of musicians at their disposal nor did the various liturgcal celebrations require the same type of music". The question is "whether or not the minstrels doubled and/or alternated with the voices, substituted them, were independent from them in the offices or, from a pragmatic and functional approach, a bit of everything was feasible". The liner-notes give an overview of the various arguments in the debate which is interesting and useful, also in listening to other recordings of this kind of repertoire.

In these performances Carles Magraner doesn't opt for one of the above-mentioned possibilities. Only one conclusion is drawn in the liner-notes: "[Those] a capella readings which were excessively contemplative, undertaken by more or less reduced ensembles, impeccable from a technical point of view and full of great, formal beauty, until very recently canonical, do not seem to be the most authentic way of translating Spanish Renaissance polyphony. In short: the greater diversity, the greater expressive richness."

This disc supports that statement: the selected pieces are performed in various scorings, reflecting the various practices which are the subject of the discussion. And there is definitely no lack of "expressive richness" here. It is one of the most interesting and often even exciting recordings of Spanish polyphony I have heard of late. The singing and playing of the Capella de Ministrers is outstanding. The programme may concentrate on music for the Christmas period, this disc can be played at any time of the year.

The disc comes with a book in which Victoria's music and the performance practice are discussed. Unfortunately it doesn't list the performers of every single item. But that doesn't really matter as this is an excellent production which no lover of renaissance music should miss.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

Relevant links:

Capella de Ministrers

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