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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger




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Tomás Luis DE VICTORIA (1548-1611)

Beata es virgo Maria [03:54]
O magnum mysterium [03:23]
Magi venerunt stellam [03:04]
Versa est in luctum [03:42]
Pueri Hebraeorum [02:05]
O vos omnes [03:31]
Vadam et circuibo [09:03]
Surrexit pastor bonus [02:51]
Senex puerum portabat (instr) [02:52]
Ave, Regina coelorum a 8 [03:31]
Ave Maria a 4 [01:34]
Ave, Regina coelorum a 5 [06:00]
Ave Maria a 8 [04:13]
Ne timeas maria [02:52]
Senex puerum portabat [03:01]
O Ildephonse [02:21]
Sancta Maria, succurre miseris [02:57]
Sancta Maria, succurre miseris [03:27]
Victoria Voices and Viols:
Andrew Hope (tenor and direction), Rebecca Hickey, Anna Stéphany (soprano), Samir Savant, Simon Lillystone (alto), JJ Barnes, Tony Purves (tenor), Chris Hunter, James Robinson (bass), Sarah Roberts (treble viol), Frances Eustace (treble, tenor and bass viol), Barbara Wyatt (tenor viol), Ilana Cravitz, Richard Partridge (bass viol), Emma Hope (double harp), Taro Takeuchi (theorbo)
Recorded in November 2001 at All Saints Church, Tudeley, England DDD

Tomás Luis de Victoria was one of the last representatives of the ‘prima prattica’, the polyphonic style which was dominant in the period music history has labelled the ‘renaissance’. Musically speaking, Spain and Portugal were isolated from the rest of Europe, and that resulted in Spanish composers being rather conservative. The fact that de Victoria went to Rome to study with Palestrina will only have enhanced that tendency. In his composing, Palestrina painstakingly followed the rulings of the Council of Trent, which tried to find answers to some of the criticisms of the Reformation. One of those criticisms was that liturgical music had become increasingly complicated and, as a result, incomprehensible to the faithful. In reply to that the Council asked for clarity of the musical texture and asked composers to pay attention to the text and to avoid anything that would obscure it.

The Counter Reformation also stressed the need for devotion. This is certainly present in De Victoria’s motets, where it goes hand in hand with the "passion, drama, intensity and radiance" – thus Andrew Hope in his liner notes – which is characteristic not only of De Victoria’s music, but of Spanish music in general.

Although De Victoria certainly paid attention to the text and makes use of madrigalisms here and there, there is generally no strong link between text and music. He rather concentrates on creating an atmosphere which reflects the nature and meaning of the text.
In the booklet, Andrew Hope explains the interpretational choices he has made. Since most of the motets were composed during De Victoria’s stay in Rome (roughly from 1565 to 1585) he has opted for an Italian pronunciation. What is decisive, though, is not where the music was composed, but where it was performed. But it is reasonable to assume that motets composed in Rome were also performed there – which doesn’t exclude the possibility that they have been performed in Spain as well, after the composer’s return to his fatherland.

But from there on Andrew Hope gets entangled in his own reasoning. One would expect that an Italian pronunciation goes hand in hand with an ‘Italian’, or more precise, ‘Roman’ style of performing, which means predominantly ‘a cappella’. But instead he has chosen to perform these motets with instruments. "Viols, harps and theorbos were widely used instruments of the late Renaissance." True, but that doesn’t say anything about where and when instruments were used, and which instruments. "Although I know of no evidence to suggest that Victoria conceived his motets to be performed with voices and stringed instruments, the practice of instrumental involvement in polyphony was both varied and widespread in Italy and Spain".

But it is very unlikely that in Rome instruments were ever used in liturgy. They were used in Spain, though: many cathedrals had their own instrumental ensembles, which supported the singers by playing ‘colla parte’ but also played motets without voices. And the fact that there is no firm evidence that a composer had a performance with instruments in mind, doesn’t necessarily make such a performance historically unjustified. But the instruments used in Spanish churches were predominantly wind instruments, like cornet, sackbut and ‘bajón’, rather than viols as are used here. In this light Andrew Hope’s statement: "I am sure that Victoria would have come to similar conclusions" seems nothing more than wishful thinking to me.

I could have lived with an ‘unhistorical’ performance if the performers didn't try to justify their choices with shallow arguments. And I could overlook even that if the performance was excellent. It isn’t – on the contrary. The characteristics attributed to De Victoria’s music in the booklet - "passion, drama, intensity and radiance" – are totally absent here.
This performance is very down-to-earth and sober, with very little text expression and contrast. The tempi are generally too brisk, which makes it impossible to reveal the passion De Victoria's music contains. And it is beyond me how the intense devotion of pieces like 'Ave Maria' or 'Ave, Regina coelorum', texts which belong to the heart of the Roman Catholic faith, can be performed in such a neutral, bland way as is the case here.
Considering the things mentioned before it really doesn't matter much that some of the singers use an annoying vibrato which undermines the overall sound of the ensemble, and that the acoustics are dry and lack the reverberation music like this needs.
Apart from the lack of historical evidence for the performance practice, this is just a boring recording which lacks any excitement, devotion or religious commitment - all of which are indispensable attributes of any performance of Spanish religious music.

Johan van Veen

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