Philippe Herreweghe doesn’t often venture into the Renaissance
repertoire these days. That’s a great shame as he evidently
has a natural affinity for this music. He also has a choir with
the rare ability to combine grace with conviction, and to articulate
with the utmost clarity, yet without ever disturbing the flow.
The result here is a Victoria recording as fine as any, and
one that makes the very best use of modern recording technology
to capture both the detail and the atmosphere of these excellent
The central work on the programme is Victoria’s Officium
Defunctorum, a Requiem setting from the days before the
genre was firmly established under that name. The opening track,
Lectio secunda ad matutinm, is taken from the same 1605
publication as the mass, and serves here as a prelude. It’s
not very exciting, a simple homophonic setting, which demonstrates
the precision of the choir’s ensemble, but doesn’t
give much of an idea of what is to follow. When the mass itself
begins in the second track, we are transported into another
world, with Victoria’s contrapuntal intricacies surrounding
us in the expansive stereo soundscape. The choir is actually
relatively small, never larger than 12 singers, as is the venue.
The singers’ projection, and the accuracy of their tuning
and ensemble, ensure an attractively round and warm sound for
all of Victoria’s textures. The choir is mixed, with female
sopranos and counter-tenors on the alto lines. That does feel
like a little bit of a compromise, although it is hardly unusual.
Two sopranos sing the plainchant introductions and occasionally
sound strained, at least in comparison with the tuttis that
Herreweghe uses gradual increments in the dynamics to shape
both the phrases and, to a certain extent, the movements too.
That’s on top of variable dynamics within the ensemble
to bring out the middle and lower parts. No doubt that is a
tricky juggling act, but it never feels contrived. Neither do
the tempos, which are occasionally brisk, but never excessively
The programme concludes with four of Victoria’s Motets.
As the liner-note points out, Victoria’s reputation is
based largely on his funereal music, so it is no bad thing to
redress the balance with some of his more upbeat works. These
Motets aren’t exactly joyous, but the mixed emotions that
they express do at least move the music out of the gloom (glorious
as it is) that most of us consider typical Victoria. Like the
mass, most of these motets are in six parts, and they are of
a similar level of density and complexity. Unlike in the mass,
the counterpoint here is not based on fixed patterns from plainchant,
allowing Victoria a great deal more flexibility in his melodic
There is always a danger with Renaissance polyphony that it
all blends into one, but the coupling on this disc makes the
contrasts between the different aspects of Victoria’s
work as explicit as possible. The clarity of the sung texts
also helps remind even the most casual listener of the music’s
I have recently been listening to recordings of Victoria from
the Tallis Scholars and the Choir of Westminster Cathedral.
This recording sits somewhere between those two poles, but draws
on the best of both. It has all the atmosphere and depth of
tone that the Westminster choristers can produce, but it also
has the clarity of line and word that we hear from the Tallis
Scholars. Even though Herreweghe and his choir don’t go
to either of these extremes, they still give a distinctive interpretation
that’s as good as any of their rivals.