Tomás Luis de VICTORIA (1548-1611)
Lectio secunda ad matutinum [3:21]
Missa pro defunctis [24:53]
Motectum: Versa est in luctum [3:11]
Absolutio: Libra me [7:48]
O Domine Iesu Christe [2:30]
Domine, non sum dignus [2:44]
Salve Regina [7:15]
Vadam et circubio civitatem [7:05]
Collegium Vocale Ghent/Philippe Herreweghe
rec. no details supplied
PHI 005 [59:40]

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 performances. 

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 follow.
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 so.
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 contours.
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 original context.
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.

Gavin Dixon

A distinctive interpretation that’s as good as any of the rivals.