Alonso LOBO (1555-1617) Versa est in luctum (1598) [5:32]
Tomás Luis de VICTORIA (1548-1611) Requiem (1603) [50:30]
Alonso LOBO Lamentations ‘Ieremiae Prophetae’ [23:47]
Tenebrae/Nigel Short
rec. 1-4 November, 2010. All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London. DDD
Latin texts and English translations included

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.

John Quinn

Vivid, committed performances of some masterpieces of Iberian polyphony.