Forget the unctuous title: this documentary, broadcast last year in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Victoria’s death, strikes the right balance between words, images, and music. One of my few criticisms of the BBC’s recent series devoted to Renaissance composers was the tendency for the music to be relegated to the background; ironic in itself, of course, but all the more so when the performances were provided by a choir of the calibre of The Sixteen. Here this solecism is put right, in that we hear entire motets; and quite often, when the music starts, the presenter, the engaging Simon Russell Beale, steps aside.
Victoria’s life is reported in a measured way, though I’m not sure what evidence there is for the young choirboy Victoria’s contact with St Teresa of Avila beyond their co-existence in the same town at the same time. Similarly spurious is the claim that the composer shared in the saint’s spiritual (specifically, mystical) leanings beyond the fact of his being a priest. Such speculations rest on very little and it would surely be a greater public service, trading one cliché for another, to let the music speak for itself.
The performances are very successful. Recording in the church of San Antonio de los Alemanes, founded in Madrid by Victoria’s royal patron in the composer’s lifetime, Harry Christophers and his singers are heard at their not inconsiderable best – as well they might be, since Christophers himself rates Victoria most highly of all his contemporaries. The church interior and its acoustic contrast with the rigour of Victoria’s more austere work, which might have looked even better in the more sober environment of the monastery of the Descalzadas Reales, where he spent the latter part of his career (the footage shot in that location is quite moving); but when Victoria is in a festive mood, the music and the surroundings are a near-perfect match. Now, why not devote a similar programme to his great contemporary Lassus, whose life and music would make for at least as entertaining a documentary? This collaboration seems too well honed to wrap it up just yet.