TOMAS LUIS DE VICTORIA: Works for Six Voices – Nordic Voices – Chandos SACD – 55:40, (6/16/17) : ****½
(Tone Elisabeth Braaten, Ingrid Hanken; sopranos / Ebba Rydh; mezzo-soprano / Per Kristian Amundred; tenor / Frank Havroy; baritone / Rolfe Magne Asser; bass)
Sparkling a cappella one-voice-per-part performances of Renaissance polyphony at its zenith.
This outstanding six-person ensemble from Norway has been performing choral music, ranging from plainchant to modern works commissioned especially for them, over the course of twenty years. They are surely happiest when they are singing with one voice per part as here, for they possess robust individual voices. This Chandos SACD deserves the closest attention and headphones to register the full impact, in terms of both separation and integration, of this exquisite group. The expertly crafted virtual sound-stage positions the listener twenty feet back, facing the half-circle with lower voices to the right, higher to the left.
The choice of recordings, works by Tomas Luis de Victoria, is obvious enough; he is perhaps the most dramatic of the Renaissance Masters. This recital comprises Motets from a 1572 publication as well as three pieces from Liber Primus qui Missas, Psalmos, ad Magnificat Virginem. Most of our readers are familiar with the Masses, but these works from the early part of Victoria’s career, in what amounts to a Roman apprenticeship, will likely be first-time experiences. “Earlier” in this case suggests no recognizable differences in technical mastery of the form — a form which aspires in any case to a strict codification, making it hard to distinguish the work from that of contemporaries De Lassus, Byrd, and Palestrina.
The Latin texts are about what you would expect. In Vexilla Regis the luminous voices are at odds with the “Royal Banner and mystic refulgent cross going forward” (ominously). “Upon the Tree of pain. O Cross… all hail,” etc. are likewise challenges to secular reception of the work. However, the ideological freight of Counter-Reformation piety is lighter in other works which seem to be leavened with the contemporary madrigal themes. Shepherds appear on the initial Quem Vidistes, Pastores (“What have you seen?”). Whereupon they reply “the newborn and choirs of angels.” And in the supernally beautiful Nigrum sum sed formosa, the maiden’s own voice is heard: “I am black but comely…. ” The enjoining “Arise, my love and come” is followed by references to flowers, the coming spring and time of pruning in what is purely human utterance and affirmation.
It is not for the liturgical dimension that we listen to Victoria, but for the supreme mastery of six-part polyphony. There could surely be persuasive arrangements made for brass or reed ensembles, thus subtracting the burden of the text, but the human voice, even in terms of pure sound, may be the most potent instrument. In this case, each voice becomes recognizable and elements of timbral personality modestly emerge from time to time, especially among the sopranos.
Two long pieces stand out for pure rapturous flow. The final Vadam et cicuibo civitatem has just about as much ascending lyrical gushing as we can stand. The text, allegorical to a fault, features a discussion about the whereabouts a lover, “white and ruddy,” who has absconded. A search discovers him up a palm tree (Is he a monkey?) in search of fruit. Ascendit in palmam, et apprehendit fructus ejus.
The liner notes are a fine introduction to the period and style. The incongruous cover photo of an old car overwhelmed by vegetation is an inspired departure from sacred themes, cathedrals and angelic choirs. Finally there are many photos of the handsome members of Nordic Voices, emphasizing individual rather than group identity.
This outstanding recording shows how well six-part Renaissance polyphony can be achieved with the minimum ensemble. Nordic Voices has both the requisite technical mastery and the charisma to make Works for Six Voices a most enjoyable and oft-to-be-repeated experience.