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Tomás Luis de VICTORIA (1548-1611)
Tenebrae Responsories, from Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae (1585)
Stile Antico
rec. 2017, All Hallows’ Church, Gospel Oak, London
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902272 [71:21]

Victoria wrote his Tenebrae responses for the religious offices of Maundy Thursday through to Holy Saturday, which were solemn but also highly dramatic, with the extinguishing of candles representing Christ’s loneliness and betrayal, and also giving the name to the office, Tenebrae meaning “darkness.”

Stile Antico have solid gold credentials when it comes to Renaissance polyphony, and in this beautiful disc they demonstrate those yet again with a gorgeously focused sound that serves this music exceptionally well. As usual with this choir, there is a sensational unity to the sound. That is surely partly thanks to the fact that they don’t have a music director but instead operate as a unity. That doesn’t come by magic, though, and the quality of their sound is a testament to how well they work together. Blend is impeccable, no voice ever rising up beyond the unified whole, and not a cigarette paper could ever be put between any individuals. The singer’s submission to the whole is a requirement of every choir, but few get the blend and balance so right as Stile Antico.

A programme like this doesn't give them as many opportunities to showcase their talent for variety, but they turn that into a virtue by plugging right into the devotional nature of the texts and, therefore, turning each moment into a profoundly beautiful meditation on the nature of Christ’s loneliness and suffering. The sopranos have a keening edge to their top, while the tenors and altos add wonderful inward colour, and the basses anchor everything in a bottom line that is important but never unduly insistent.

Laudably, the choir have tweaked the musical programme to provide a self-contained listening experience on CD, rather than simply replicating its use in a liturgical setting. Sometimes that means omitting certain repeats, and in other cases it means giving the upper parts to lower voices. In fact, I found these the most compelling. The velvety darkness of the Good Friday responsory “Tenebrae factae sunt”, sung only by tenors and basses, provides welcome contrast but is also sensationally beautiful in itself, as is the Holy Saturday response, “Aestimatus sum.”

These stand out as musical and dramatic contrast in the overall picture and, In addition, Stile Antico include three unison plainsong settings of the Lamentations, mirroring the fact that, in the service, most of the music would have been unison chanting, so Victoria’s settings would have provided welcome contrast.

These performance choices are all spelt out in the lucid and helpful booklet note, which was written by Matthew O’Donovan, who also sings bass in the choir. Texts and translations are, of course, included, and the recording sounds very good in the acoustic of All Hallows', Gospel Oak; clean and clear with just a little bloom around the sound.

The main rival among recent recordings is Nigel Short’s (appropriately named) choir Tenebrae on their 2013 Signum disc. I think it marginally has the edge on this Stile Antico performance, partly because there is a little more bloom on the sound while the focus is every bit as strong.

However, Stile Antico save their trump card for the end, with a stunningly beautiful performance of O Domine Jesu Christe, a motet for Holy Week which is clearly set apart from the rest of the responsories. Where the responsories are predominantly austere, the sound picture for the motets glows with beauty. It’s brief, but this motet feels like the end point towards which this disc has been working.

Comparisons with Nigel Short’s choir are, perhaps, invidious, because at this level of excellence we’re really splitting hairs, and any lover of Renaissance choral music can invest in either with complete confidence.

Simon Thompson

Previous reviews: Ralph Moore ~ Alan Young

Maundy Thursday Responsories – Second and Third Nocturnes
1. Amicus meus [3:01]
2. Iudas mercator pessimus [2:24]
3. Unus ex discipuli meis [4:07]
4. Eram quasi agnus [3:31]
5. Una hora [3:05]
6. Seniores populi [5:43]
7. Plainsong: Incipit lamentationae Jeremiae Prophetae
Good Friday Responsories – Second and Third Nocturnes
8. Tamquam ad latronem [3:42]
9. Tenebrae factae sunt [4:22]
10. Animam meam dilectam [8:14]
11. Tradiderunt me [2:43]
12. Iesum tradidit impius [2:55]
13. Caligaverunt oculi mei [6:32]
14. Plainsong: De lamentationae Jeremiae Prophetae
Holy Saturday Responsories – Second and Third Nocturnes
15. Recessit pastor noster [3:31]
16. O vos omnes [3:04]
17. Ecce quomodo moritus [5:29]
18. Astiterunt reges [2:10]
19. Aestimatus sum [2:44]
20. Sepulto Domino [4:41]
21. Plainsong: De lamentationae Jeremiae Prophetae
22. Motet: O Domine Jesus Christe

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