Vivid, committed performances of some masterpieces of Iberian polyphony.
2012 BBC Music Magazine Award Winner
BBC Music Magazine Choral & Song Choice, June 2011 Performance *****, Recording *****
Beautifully crafted Victoria – BBC Music Magazine Choral & Song Choice Anthony Pryer gives a warm welcome to Tenebrae's superlative disc.
This truly great Requiem by Victoria was written on the death of his patron, the sister of Philip II of Spain. Many choirs have recorded it before including those directed by Harry Christophers (on Coro) and Peter Philips (Gimell). Philips also pairs Victoria's works with those by Lobo (a composer working in Seville),Read more but the insight and advocacy of Nigel Short's recording make it outstanding.
The special problems of this music include the fact that in historical terms its 'pre-emotional' style makes it difficult to evoke meaningful contrast from the notes. Many groups go for a kind of random, lurching, squeeze-box approach to the phrases, but Nigel Shorts choir is more subtle. In Lobos Versa est in luctum he keeps his eye on the overall shape of the piece, wonderfully grading and crafting the musical unfolding. In Victoria's Sanctus the sentiments of the words ('heaven and earth are full of thy glory') prompt a sustained celebration of sound, and in the Responsory ('the day of wrath') Short finds a musical dramaturgy to match that of the text. The Requiem is written for six voices, but this choir of 20 never seems lumbering or unbalanced. They are perfectly tuned (listen to the exquisite poise of the Agnus Dei), and one is rarely aware of intrusive individual singers. The acoustic has a long echo, but the sound is kept nicely in focus. This recording does justice both to the genius of Victoria and to the musicality of Tenebrae.
-- Anthony Pryer, BBC Music Magazine
VICTORIA Requiem Mass (1605). LOBO Versa est in luctum. Misericordiae Domini • Nigel Short, dir; Tenebrae • SIGNUM SIGCD 248 (79:04 Text and Translation)
More commonly titled Officium Defunctorum, Tomás Luis de Victoria’s last publication ranks with his Officium Majoris Hebdomadae (music for Holy Week) as his two great masterpieces. The term Officium is suitable because there is more than the Requiem Mass here. A lesson from Matins is heard beforehand, and Victoria’s own setting of Versa est in luctum follows at the end, along with the responsory Libera me. Even if a new version of this work were not appropriate for the composer’s quatercentenary, it has been five years since we had recordings of this work from Harry Christophers (Fanfare 29:3) and Carles Magraner (30:5). With three voices to a part, this shares the precision of a vocal ensemble and the warm, full sound of a choir—exactly what Nigel Short intended when he formed the group after singing in both kinds of groups. This version goes to the top of the list along with David Hill’s Westminster Cathedral choir (11:2; CD in 11:3) and Harry Christophers, sharing the best qualities of both versions.
Lobo’s motet Versa est in luctum, his most familiar work, has been recorded frequently, most recently on this label by the King’s Singers, while his first lamentation for Holy Saturday has been singled out by Bruno Turner and David Trendell (26:5) but not recorded as part of a set. At almost 24 minutes, Lobo’s lamentation is an extraordinary setting for its great length, and this performance is drawn out more than the other two. It is also the most affecting of the three performances.
The sound deserves a special mention for once. All Hallows is frequently used for recording and Mike Hatch is a busy sound engineer, but there is an unusually gratifying space surrounding the singing here. I regret having missed the group’s two earlier recordings on this label, but I look forward to the next. This disc is a highlight of the Victoria anniversary.
FANFARE: J. F. Weber
Tenebrae is nothing if not a versatile choir! Only recently I reviewed their fine CD of an eloquent contemporary work,
Prayers for Mankind by Alexander Levine. Now we encounter them in a disc devoted to Iberian polyphony from the turn of the seventeenth century.
These performances differ from those by, say, The Tallis Scholars, in that whereas Peter Phillips has two singers to a part, Tenebrae field a choir of twenty (8/3/6/3). This means a fuller, richer sound. The Tallis Scholars, on the other hand, whose recordings of the Victoria Requiem and of the Lobo
Versa est in luctum, both on the same disc, I >reviewed not long ago, convey a greater sense of intimacy and bring out the austere side of Victoria’s masterpiece. I am certainly not saying one approach is preferable to the other but there is a difference. What these ensembles have in common is the excellence of their singing.
Lobo’s setting of verses from the Lamentations of Jeremiah uses the text for the first lesson of Holy Saturday, a fact not mentioned in the booklet. It’s a very fine piece indeed, offering a wide variety of musical responses to the prophet’s verses. Helpfully, Signum provides a separate track, twenty in all, for the music of each verse and Hebrew letter. I found Tenebrae’s performance very involving. The singing is superb and marvellously controlled and Nigel Short makes intelligent use of dynamic contrast throughout.
That’s something he does elsewhere in the programme. Lobo’s beautiful
Versa est in luctum, written for the funeral rites of King Philip II of Spain in 1598, opens the programme. Short gives an expansive reading of the piece – The Tallis Scholars performance lasts for 4:37 compared with Short’s 5:32 – and he encourages his singers to employ a satisfyingly full tone. One pleasing feature – and it occurs elsewhere on the disc as well – is the firmness and sonority of the bass line. The sound is never forced but it’s remarkable that just three singers can make so effective a contribution to the sound of a twenty-strong ensemble.
Philip II’s death inspired Lobo’s exquisite short piece but five years later, in 1603, the death of the king’s sister, Dowager Empress Maria occasioned the composition of one of the towering masterpieces of Iberian polyphony. Victoria had been in the service of the Dowager Empress since 1585 and his final duty for his mistress was to compose the music for her funeral rites. This magnificent Requiem, which was published in 1605, is a moving memorial to Empress Maria.
Comparing the present recording with that of the Tallis Scholars one finds again that the smaller group assembled by Peter Philips achieves a greater sense of intimacy, which may be more historically accurate. However, one should most certainly not overlook the considerable claims of this performance simply because it is sung by a larger choir. Indeed, Tenebrae generate a really strong atmosphere and their singing is often exciting. That may seem an odd thing to say of an account such as this and I certainly don’t mean that the excitement is in any way superficial. Both Tenebrae and the Tallis Scholars achieve a very real intensity – albeit intensity of a different kind.
In this Tenebrae version there is, for example a palpable feeling of drama in the Offertorium at the passage beginning ‘Libera animas omnium fidelium defunctorum’. Later on, the Sanctus is superbly controlled with genuine fervour at ‘pleni sunt caeli et terra’. The concluding Responsory, ‘Libera me’, also offers opportunities for singing that has bite and drama, such as ‘Tremens factus sum ego’. Yet though there are several passages where the singing is arresting and, dare I say, full-on there are many other moments of intense beauty and contemplation. In short, this Tenebrae performance offers a vivid, committed account of Victoria’s masterpiece. It offers a very different experience to the Tallis Scholars’ version and I’m glad to have the choice between two such excellent, contrasting visions of this superb piece. I esteem both of them highly.
It’s probably superfluous to say that Tenebrae’s collective response to all the music on this disc is obtained through singing that is at all times beautifully balanced and blended. The attraction of the disc is enhanced by the splendid sound that engineer Mike Hatch has provided. He achieves fine clarity and seems to have made the most of the natural resonance of the church where the recordings were made.