Edward Breen celebrates Spain's first great composer
Today, Victoria’s reputation largely rests on his Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae (music for Holy Week) of 1585 and Officium defunctorum (Requiem Mass) of 1605 written for the funeral of the Dowager Empress María. These works are much recorded and certainly well worth discovering. The Requiem in particular displays the underlying subtleties of a technique learned from Palestrina and uses very little imitative polyphony allowing for a clear, bold and striking presentation of the words.
Yet many modern British ensembles find the abundance of Spanish imagery that feeds into our national subconscious a red rag to a bull (if you forgive the reference). Such large, solid textures often become gateways to the pursuit of Spanish flavour. I suspect such vocal heroics originate from Westminster Cathedral Choir who are preeminent in the performance of Victoria’s music. The first choirmaster of Westminster Cathedral (appointed in 1896) was Sir Richard Terry, an early pioneer in the revival 16th-century polyphony and the tradition he began is discernable in George Malcolm’s hair-raising 1959 recording of Victoria’s Responsories for Tenebrae with the cathedral choir. The passion and sheer energy on this disc is unforgettable; and it is still some of the finest treble singing that I have ever heard. (Incidentally, this recording is from the same year that they recorded Britten’s Missa brevis.)
This robust tradition lives on with many fine performances by Westminster Cathedral Choir on the Hyperion label with the Requiem (directed by David Hill), many of the Masses: Missa dum complerentur in particular (James O’Donnell ) and a recent recording by the Lay Clerks of Missa Gaudeamus (Matthew Martin) which is particularly ebullient.
Maybe because of their popularity on disc, the Requiem and Holy Week music provide the most fertile ground for comparison of performance practice. Whereas David Hill and Westminster Cathedral Choir opt for a strident performance suited to their famously huge acoustic, Peter Phillips and The Tallis Scholars find a much more Italianate lilt reminding us of Victoria’s closeness to Palestrina. Indeed, one could almost go as far as to say that Westminster Cathedral choir perform Victoria, while The Tallis Scholars perform Vittoria. This Italian hue underpins their entire anniversary boxed-set released by Gimell records last month. Containing the Requiem (1987), Responsories (1990) and Lamentations (2010) it is remarkable for its consistent quality and philosophy of performance. A specially recorded video of the first Lamentation for Maundy Thursday can be seen here…