Tenebrae is nothing if not a versatile choir! Only recently
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
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
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.