Victoria stands out as one of the very finest composers of Renaissance Europe. A man of many talents - he was also a singer, an organist and a priest - he has become widely known for his intensely spiritual music. The Tenebrae Responsories are no exception. Appearing in a book of sacred music published in 1585, they form part of the most complete collection of music for Holy Week - the week before Easter in the Christian calendar - by any leading Renaissance composer.
This is not the first recording of Victoria's Tenebrae Responsories. Westminster Cathedral choir did so in 1989, the Tallis Scholars in 1990 and The Sixteen in 1995. On the other hand, this version, from a choir numbering just 13 (4/3/3/3) immediately engaged me. It is not only intimate but also theatrical - something for which Tenebrae is justly celebrated. I was rapidly drawn into it and wanted more. The choir did not fail to deliver and the disc just got better and better.
Victoria's sense of text, word-painting and harmony are all very powerful. This is something that is magnified greatly by their performance. The remarkably clear diction ensures that the text is delivered with full force, and I was glued to it from the off. The text is just the beginning of what is just so right about this disc.
Each of Victoria's beautifully crafted vocal lines has its own place within Tenebrae's delivery. The choir's sense of ensemble is exceptional, not only ensuring each melodic line comes across in its own right but also allowing the harmony to stay in place effortlessly. Almost like an earthquake-proof building, the movement and freedom in the melodic lines do not damage the integrity of the musical structure. Achieving that balance is difficult indeed but this disc is a textbook example of how to do it right.
The choir's sense of blend is unbelievably good too. Everything moves seamlessly and smoothly, just as Renaissance polyphony should. The performance is also nimble throughout with the choir's agility at its peak in the "verso" sections where a semi-chorus sing a section of music, a feature very much typical of the Renaissance era. Delicate but by no means weak, the “verso” sections were particularly poignant.
The various emotions of the Tenebrae Responsories were astoundingly articulated. The betrayal, the sense of loss, the anger, the grief and the tragedy - to name but a few - I felt each and every single one. It was devastatingly beautiful.
In front of every great choir is a conductor with the remarkable musicality to pull and hold things together. Nigel Short's direction is nothing short of masterful - a skilled singer/director directing excellent singers. This disc presents impeccable music-making and should be in anybody's collection. Amazing.
Previous review: Simon Thompson