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Tomás Luis DE VICTORIA (1548 - 1611): "Requiem Mass, 1605"

Dir: Nigel Short

rec: Nov 1 - 4, 2010, Gospel Oak, All Hallows & Holborn, St Albans
Signum Records - SIGCD248 (© 2011) (79'04")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & tracklist
Score (Victoria)

Alonso LOBO (1555-1617): Lamentationes Ieremiae Prophetae; Versa est in luctum; Tomás Luis DE VICTORIA: Missa pro defunctis

Zoe Brown, Natalie Clifton Griffiths, Grace Davidson, Susanna Fairbairn, Joanna Forbes l'Estrange, Emilia Hughes, Amy Moore, Katie Tretheway, soprano; David Allsopp, Mark Chambers, alto; Clare Wilkinson, contralto; Ben Alden, William Blake, Benedict Hymas, Matthew Long, Nick Madden, Nick Todd, tenor; Gabriel Crouch, William Gaunt, Jimmy Holliday, bass

There is something special about the polyphony which was written at the Iberian peninsula in the 16th century. It is part of a rich tradition which had dominated sacred music in Europe from the 14th century on. For about two centuries composers from the so-called Franco-Flemish school were active almost everywhere. Thanks to the Capilla Flamenca they even did influence polyphonic writing in Spain. But Spanish and Portuguese polyphony has something which is often absent in music written elsewhere. Composers like Morales and Victoria - to mention just the two best-known - followed the rules of polyphony but somehow they were able to add some flavour to their works, a kind of warmth and passion which doesn't come to the fore that often in music by composers from the North, or even an Italian like Palestrina.

It is this aspect of Iberian music which is very hard to grasp and even more difficult to realise in a recording. In the field of classical polyphony British ensembles are dominating. That is understandable as the many college and cathedral choirs obviously sing this kind of repertoire frequently, and many professional musicians have gathered their first musical experiences in one of these choirs. The problem is that what one could call the Anglo-Saxon vocal aethetics are not ideally suited to Iberian polyphony. That said, in particular the Choir of Westminster Cathedral have delivered some great performances of Spanish polyphonic music, partly due to the fact that it is their daily bread, being a Roman Catholic church choir and treating this music first and foremost from a liturgical angle. And we should not forget some wonderful recordings in the 1970s and 1980s by the ensemble Pro Cantione Antiqua. Its star singers, among them the likes of James Bowman, Paul Esswood, John Elwes and David Thomas, were able to grasp that typical 'Spanishness' which often lacks in other recordings.

These paragraphs should serve to explain why I am not very impressed with this recording of the Requiem by Tomás Luis de Victoria. It is one of his most frequently performed compositions, and is generally considered one of the masterpieces of the polyphonic era. Over the years I have heard several recordings but not many have left me really satisfied. Thinking about it I can only mention one recording which made a lasting impression - ironically also by a British ensemble: the Gabrieli Consort, directed by Paul McCreesh. There are several factors which make that recording so impressive and superior to this performance by Tenebrae.

Firstly, the acoustic is not too reverberant - unlike that in Tenebrae's recording. In 1585 Victoria was appointed chaplain to the Dowager Empress María - the sister of Spain's King Philip II - who lived at the Monasterio de las Descalzas de S. Clara in Madrid. When she died in 1603 it was Victoria's task to write the music for the funeral rites. That is the music which was printed in 1605 as the Officium defunctorum. I don't know whether there is any information about the size of the monastery's chapel but it seems unlikely that it was a very large space. And from that perspective the reverberation in Tenebrae's recording seems to large. This is partly responsible for the lack of intimacy which is one of the shortcomings of this performance. And that is exactly what is impressive about the Gabrieli Consort's performance: the solemnity which one may expect from the ceremonies in which Victoria's music was sung is well realised, but it goes along with the right amount of intimacy. This is particularly important because this reflects the restraint which is a feature of Victoria's music. The passion I was talking about before, doesn't only mean exuberance and excitement - which is certainly a feature of some Iberian polyphony - but can also take the form of a kind of 'inner passion', something felt at the inside and expressed in the shaping of the various lines of the polyphony and the harmonic structure.

The scoring of the Gabrieli Consort - 19 singers and a bajón - is not what Victoria had at his disposal: 4 boys and 12 adult singing priests. But McCreesh only uses male singers and the result is much more satisfying than the recording of Tenebrae. This choir consists of 20 singers: eight sopranos, three male altos, six tenors and three basses. The balance between the various sections is less than ideal. Moreover, although it is a generally accepted practice to use female sopranos instead of boys, I find this practice particularly unsatisfactory in the polyphony of the renaissance. In the Gabrieli Consort the voices, from alto to bass, blend much better than the women and men in Tenebrae. Another important factor is the treatment of dynamics. Tenebrae's interpretation includes some dynamic shading, but it doesn't serve the expression of the music. The forte passages are sometimes obtrusive, even rough, like at the beginning of the Offertorio. McCreesh also creates a forte here, but it is much more natural and it doesn't disturb the balance between the voices as in Tenebrae's recording. The singers of the Gabrieli Consort dose the dynamic shades perfectly, at the service of the expression.

Lastly, McCreesh has chosen to put Victoria's music into a liturgical context. This seems to me a more satisfying concept than to present this Requiem as concert music. It is probably another reason why the recording of the Gabrieli Consort much better communicates the content and the character of this masterpiece.

Nigel Short has added some music by another Spanish composer, Alonso Lobo. For the largest part of his career he worked away from the main centres of liturgical music. But his oeuvre is of great quality as the two pieces on this disc shows. His music is more exuberant and here the approach of Tenebrae suits the music much better, and so does the large reverberation of the church. It should be added, though, that both works of Lobo have been recorded before - among others on another Signum Classics disc, by The King's Singers.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

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