Tomas Luis de Victoria
* Ave regina caelorum
* Missa Ave regina caelorum
* Ave Maria a 4
* Dixit Dominus
* Laudate pueri Dominum
* Laudate Dominum omnes gentes
* Laetatus sum
* Nisi Dominus
* Magnificat septimi toni
* Ave Maria a 8
Robert Quinney, organ continuo
The Choir of Westminster Cathedral/Martin Baker
Hyperion CDA67479 Total time: 68:27
Summary for the Busy Executive: Slightly disappointing.
A major revolution in western music took place about four hundred years
ago. The old system of constructing music based on the so-called "church"
modes gave way to the present system of functional harmony. It actually
signaled a profound change in more than simply harmony. It transformed
the way we perceive musical contrasts and, consequently, musical form.
I suspect that almost every listener -- even if he doesn't know the
technical terminology -- can distinguish the major parts of a well-made
sonata movement, simply by listening. After all, the key usually changes
with each part. We suddenly find ourselves not merely engaged in different
musical material, but in a different "home" tonality. The joins between
parts became sharper. With the modes, our sense of home never changes.
Rather, we may perceive a subtle shift of color as the mode changes.
In other words, barriers have risen between us and music before, say,
Purcell or even Monteverdi. We've lost the emotional connection to the
modes, other than a sense of archaism and ritual, simply because that's
the use put to them by Modern modal composers: Vaughan Williams and
Hovhaness, for example. For the high Renaissance, each mode had its
own meaning. Because we have written testimony, we know that meaning
intellectually, but we probably don't feel it in the same way we feel
the meaning of major and minor (probably the remnant of those old modes
anyway). Many complain about the "sameness," the "flatness" of the
music. On the other hand, I suspect a composer like Josquin would be
a bit dismayed at the expressive violence of even Mozart. Furthermore,
expressive markings from Renaissance composers tend to be rather rare
on the ground. The interpretations of these works have slipped our usual
tether, because the composers have told us nothing but notes and rhythm.
Even the notes, the pitches, written down are subject to interpretation.
I have heard many wildly different realizations of the same mass, to the
point where they become almost different pieces.
Performance styles wander all over the map. The preferred scholarly
style tends to the careful and, to my taste, the rather dry. On the
other hand, I've heard hokum - full of swell pedal and Guiding Light
rubatos - that counters the sound of the music. The big problem for an
interpreter is how to shape the music, particularly the great masses of
the Renaissance - in their aesthetic hierarchy, the equivalent of our
symphony. You can't just bull your way through. The best Renaissance
composers at least equal our best in skill and subtlety. I've studied
this music for over forty years, and I don't claim to have the key.
However, I have heard and taken part in revelatory performances.
The Spanish composer and friend of St. Teresa of Avila, Tomas Luis
de Victoria, presents fewer problems than many Renaissance composers in
that he loves the dramatic. His music brims full with built-in contrast,
especially in most of the works here, almost all written for various
types of double choir (that is, two distinct choral masses used mainly
antiphonally). A conductor still must work out a lot of stuff, but at
least Victoria puts some rough guideposts.
Victoria gets contrast and drama mainly by color. He experiments with
different combinations of voices. His double choirs are not always equal
- eg, SSAT / SATB. Lush chordal passages often break suddenly into quiet,
canonic duets. Textures change not particularly whimsically, but almost
always because the meaning of the text suggests change. In short,
Victoria gives the modern listener more help than many of his contemporaries.
The big work on the disc, the Marian mass Missa Ave maris stella, is a
so-called parody mass - that is, a mass based on a previous composition,
in this case Victoria's own motet "Ave maris stella." There are two main
sections, with the second part in a quick triple-time (analogous to
our 6/8), where the text commands us to rejoice - triple-time and joy
expressively connected during the Renaissance. Phrases from the motet
find their way into the mass, most notably in the Credo's "Incarnatus"
section at the words "ex Maria virgine," where we hear the opening phrase
of the "Ave maris stella." Phrases based on the triple-time music in the
motet pop up during the big praises of the mass - at the Sanctus's
"Hosanna," for example.
Thank St. Cecilia for British choirs, who've done so much to keep this
repertoire alive in the first place with first-rate, at times visionary
performances. I will say that my favorite performance of a major Victoria
work, the Tenebrae Responses conducted by George Malcolm, came out on
an Argo LP many years ago. I have no idea whether it ever made it to
CD. It was wildly out of style, about as far away from scholarly as you
could get (even by the standards of its day), and it packed a hell of a
punch. It's probably not what Victoria had in mind, but then again I'm
not Victoria. At any rate, brilliant British choirs continue to tackle
this stuff with both scholarship and zeal.
Martin Baker has trained his Westminster Cathedral Choir (Catholic, not
Anglican) to a high degree of polish. They are rhythmically precise,
their diction crackles, their intonation never wavers from dead on, and
their tone sounds like the trumpets of angels. Unfortunately, it's the
same tone throughout. There's not a wide range of color, except for
the textural changes specified by the composer and occasional drops to
one-to-a-part singing specified by the conductor. It's okay, but it's
not really enough to counter the feeling of sameness that began to creep
over me, somewhere in the middle of the mass. To me, this music is the
choral equivalent of a string quartet. You simply cannot start a section
and continue on automatic. Each phrase probably has its own color.
Baker needs to go further, and I'm sure this choir could follow him.
The acoustic is a bit too bright.
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