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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger

Tomás Luis de VICTORIA (1548-1611)
Second Vespers of the Feast of the Annunciation (ed. Jon Dixon)
Exon Singers/Matthew Owens
rec. 3-4 January 2004, Chapel of Giggleswick School, North Yorkshire, UK DDD


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In recent years a number of early music specialists, such as Robert King and, especially, Paul McCreesh, have issued CDs presenting music in the context of an often speculative reconstruction of an historical event or church service. Those I have come across have struck me as examples of an extremely imaginative way of shedding fresh light on such music. This Victoria CD is in some ways similar in conception.

The scholar Jon Dixon has assembled a number of Marian pieces in the form of Second Vespers for the Feast of the Annunciation. This is celebrated on 25 March. First Vespers are celebrated in the Catholic Church on the evening preceding a Sunday or major feast while the service of Second Vespers takes place on the actual Sunday or feast day. In his very interesting booklet note Dixon says that the collection assembled here is “not intended as an ‘authentic’ reconstruction, but more as a musical offering demonstrating how this wonderful body of music could be performed employing some of the liturgical practices that developed in the following generation” (after Victoria’s death). I think his “offering” is extremely successful.

The Exon Singers is a mixed choir consisting of eight sopranos, five altos (male and female), five tenors and six basses. The choir makes a splendid sound and has evidently been prepared scrupulously by Matthew Owens, their conductor since 1997. Owens was, at the time of this recording, Organist and Master of the Music at St. Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh but he has recently moved to a similar post at Wells Cathedral.  On the evidence of this recording he is an expert and inspiring choral conductor and he gets a committed, enthusiastic response from his singers.

The pieces presented here include settings of four Vesper psalms. The appropriate plainchant antiphon prefaces and concludes each psalm. However, after the second psalm Jon Dixon has opted not for the plainchant antiphon but for an eight-part setting of the same text (Ave Maria). He does the same after the third psalm, introducing a four-part setting of Ne timeas Maria. This works very well. Dixon also incorporates a setting in four parts of the hymn, Ave maris stella and an eight-part Magnificat. Finally, as addenda to the Vespers, we hear an eight-part Regina cœli and a Marian litany also in eight parts, the Litany of Loreto.

Throughout the disc the singing of the Exon singers is splendidly confident. In fact they evince a refreshing enthusiasm, coupled with sensitivity and expertise. Just occasionally the delivery of the plainchant may be thought to be a bit too enthusiastic - for example the antiphon to the second psalm, Laudate pueri (track 3) – but I’d far rather have that than a over-cautious, constrained approach. And their open-throated and open-hearted approach pays many dividends, such as in the thrilling sound of the double choir in the psalm Nisi Dominus (track 7). Sample also the uninhibitedly joyful, indeed exuberant performance of Regina cœli near the end of the proceedings (track 12).

Owens and his singers are just as successful in more reflective items such as the beautiful motet, Ave Maria (track 4), heard after the psalm Laudate pueri. This is quite beautifully sung.

Throughout the disc all the strands of polyphony come across clearly and the choir’s diction is excellent. So too is the balance and the blend of the voices. I’m sure the performers would acknowledge that they have been well served by the engineers. The recording is quite full on, presenting the singers with immediacy. This allows great clarity and detail but there’s ample space around the sound.

To complete the attractions of this release the booklet is handsome, with beautiful colour illustrations on the outer covers. The notes by Jon Dixon are very good, and full Latin texts and English translations are provided. Furthermore, the typeface in the booklet is nice and clear – praise be! – something one can’t always take for granted.

This is a distinguished release and a most enjoyable one to which I’m very happy to give an unreserved welcome.

John Quinn



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