The line-up for this recording is impressive in itself and almost
a reason for acquiring the disc. Recorded in 1978, the choir
includes James Bowman, Paul Esswood, Ian Partridge, Stephen
Roberts, David Thomas, Ian Caddy and Christopher Keyte. The
group were one of the foremost British a cappella choral
groups before the Tallis Scholars and their recordings were
hugely influential. There is a particular Pro Cantione Antiqua
sound, which this disc captures. Generally they sing one voice
to a part, with voices that are richly expressive and well differentiated.
You get the sense of a group of people singing individual lines,
with individual expression but coming together into a whole.
It is this feeling for line, with each voice differentiated,
that distinguishes the group. Whilst not as vibrant and highly
coloured as some of the more recent continental performers,
the group’s sound is anything but white.
On this disc the main core of seventeen singers, plus Andrew
van der Beek on bass dulcian and bassoon and Geoffrey Mitchell
and Alan Cuckston on organs, comes together in various different
combinations of singers ranging from two choirs, organ and bass
dulcian to two counter-tenors and two tenors.
The Spanish were renowned falsettists and it is quite reasonable,
in historic terms, to perform this sort of music with an all-male
adult group. The addition of a bass dulcian on some numbers,
to strengthen the low bass part, was evidently common practice
in Spain at this period.
What we have is a wonderful selection of Victoria’s motets,
plus a Magnificat. The majority of Victoria’s sacred motets
come from his first published collection, which came out in
1572 when he was working at the Collegio Germanico in Rome.
On this disc six of the motets come from this collection including
the glorious double choir Ave Maria which concludes the
disc; the organ part comes from the 1600 edition of the work.
Two motets (Salve Regina and Super Flumina Babylonis)
come from Victoria's 1576 collection which included Masses,
Psalms and Magnificats. There are further motets from the 1583
collection of motets and a final couple from the 1600 collection,
published in Madrid, which included some nineteen pieces from
Victoria wrote at a time when composers were, to a certain extent,
circumscribed by the Council of Trent (1545–1563), with the
requirements that words should be audible and that composers
should avoid secular models. The clarity and dignity with which
the exponents of this style articulated the text gave rise to
new models, whose master was Palestrina. Victoria’s style is
indebted to Palestrina, but he is very much his own man. Victoria
seems to have written no secular music, but his thematic material
can be rather lighter than that of Palestrina. There is something
about the way Victoria lays out his parts, often spacing them
out, which marks out his own distinctive sound-world. The majority
of this music might have been written in Italy (Victoria did
not return to Spain until 1587), but it sounds Spanish.
This disc seems to be a distillation of Pro Cantione Antiqua’s
three LP set Spanish Renaissance Church music, in which
the music of Victoria was interspersed with music by his contemporaries
such as Guerrero. The impetus behind the original set was Robert
Stevenson’s book ‘Spanish Cathedral Music in the Golden Age’.
Frankly, I think this collection wonderful and wouldn’t be without
it. I love the sound that the group makes and would totally
deny that there is any degree of monotony in listening to thirteen
motets by Victoria, sung in quick succession, all with counter-tenors
singing their top lines. But I have to accept that not everyone
will agree with my view. The problem is that I haven’t come
across many other collections of Victoria motets. Most other
groups combine Victoria’s motets with one or more of his masses.
The CD booklet includes a short essay about Victoria’s music
but, crucially, there are no texts.
I wouldn’t want to be without this collection, but not everyone
will take to Victoria sung one-to-a-part by an all-male group.
But do try it. I don’t think you will be disappointed.