Victoria Sacred Works
With the year drawing to a close, at last there comes a project worthy in scope of one of the best-loved composers of the Renaissance, the 400th anniversary of whose death falls in 2011. To those of us who’d feared that multi-volume anthologies devoted to Renaissance music (and from one of the big multinational record labels at that) were a thing of the past, this 10‑CD Victoria set gives cause for hope. The 11 hours of music on offer represent both a sizeable portion and a representative sample of Victoria’s output. In his all too brief booklet-note, Ensemble Plus Ultra’s director, Michael Noone, mentions the need to rid Victoria’s music of some of the hoarier clichés that have attached themselves to it – not least the epithet ‘mystical’. Amen to that.
The 90‑odd works recorded here include 10 Masses, half of his work in the genre, covering most of his creative life. Apart from a welcome opportunity to hear the four-voice Requiem, overshadowed nowadays in favour of the later six-voice setting, the principal focus is on those Masses based directly or indirectly on Marian plainchants. From the early group, the Missa Ave maris stella boasts a particularly fine reading – lucid and sure-footed, with none of the parts having to stray outside their registral comfort zones. Slightly later is the famous setting on O quam gloriosum, one of the clearer instances of Noone’s attempt to blow some cobwebs off the ethereal vision of the composer. The motet is taken at quite a clip and some of that assertiveness rubs off on the Mass.
But most distinctive compositionally is the group of four Masses first published in 1600, all for at least two choirs distributed between eight to 12 voices. Compared with the earlier settings these are compact and taut: unlike many composers writing for multiple choirs, Victoria recognised that their effect is enhanced when the material is not over-laboured. Contrary to a perception that dies hard, Victoria’s habitual disposition tends toward the joyful; but the Missa Pro Victoria is positively martial. Noone presses sackbuts and cornetts into service, appropriately enough, but despite moments of great poise, the blend between voices and instruments isn’t always as close as it should be (try the opening of the second Agnus Dei). Besides, is poise really what’s needed? The version from Le Parlement de Musique (Accord, 9/99 – nla), now over a dozen years old, really grabs the music by the scruff of the neck. More convincing (in fact one of the most successful discs of this set) is the Vespers music built around the 12-voice Mass and motet Laetatus sum, in which polyphony and plainchant, voices and instruments, converge in a grand statement that gives some idea of the music’s rhetorical power, perhaps because the programming has a clear structure and a sense of purpose. The same might be said for the disc recorded at Lerma, with the choir supported by a memorably sonorous organ; the programme includes two fine Magnificats and the Missa Alma redemptoris mater. One imagines that the evocative location in both cases (the first a church in Tordesillas, the second in Lerma) was a powerful inspiration.
One of the advantages of including a Mass setting on a disc is the sense of underpinning it imparts to a programme; a similar cogency is achieved in the set of Lamentations (which were also issued earlier this year by the German Ensemble Officium – Christophorus, 7/11) because of their cyclical presentation. Where such a structure is lacking, as in the disc devoted entirely to the motets, the
effect is more piecemeal, the performances somehow less distinctive. A notable exception is the transcription of the six-voice Vadam et circuibo civitatem, in which the top line is richly ornamented and given to a soloist. In negotiating its pyrotechnics Clare Wilkinson shows considerable poise, which is to say not quite the last degree of abandon appropriate to a setting of the Song of Songs. Given the extent of Victoria’s discography, though, it seems a shame that more such unusual performance contexts (unusual for us, that is) aren’t presented here. Plus Ultra has succeeded in blowing some of the cobwebs off him but whether Victoria emerges new-minted, his music fit to face its fifth century, is another matter.