Monday 31 March 2014

In Terra Aliena - Music for Double Choir by Tomas Luis de Victoira

Zenobia Consort
The Zenobia Consort is a Madrid-based chamber choir and with their director Rupert Damerell they made short visit to the UK last weekend giving concerts at Trinity College, Cambridge and St James's Church, Spanish Place, London as well as singing at Wesminster Cathedral. I caught up with the choir on Saturday 29 March at St James's Spanish Place where they performed a lunchtime concert of music for double choir by Victoria including the Ave Maria, Salve Regina, Missa Salve Regina, Super Fluminis Babylones, Alma Redemptoris Mater and the Magnificat primi toni.

They opened with the two Marian antiphons, Ave Maria and Salve Regina published in the 1570's when Victoria was in Rome. The choir had around 40 singers and made a rich, warm sound, quite soft grained in tone but which filled the rich interior of St James's Church with Victoria's vibrant music.  Damerell took a relaxed, almost gentle approach to the music with allowed it to breath and expand.
(now with a video from the performance, after the break)

Victoria's Missa Salve Regina is based in his Salve Regina antiphon, but the mass was written over 10 years after the antiphon, by which time Victoria had returned to Madrid. Instead of performing the mass with two equal choirs Damerell used a smaller and larger group, based on what would have been used in Spain in Victoria's time when the smaller first choir would have had the six trebles on the top line, with the larger second choir having falsettists on the top line.

For much of the mass, Victoria uses his forces in dialogue creating some lovely combinations of textures as they overlap and come together. Here Damerell's relaxed approach paid real dividends, with the choir making a surprisingly flexible sound for so large a group. They pointed the words well, so that both Gloria and Credo was nicely comprehensible. During the Crucifixus Victoria uses the upper lines of both choirs to create a four-part high voiced texture to magical effect. In the Agnus Dei there is quite a complex interplay between the two groups. The choir's lovely warm rich sound brought out the mixtures of texture well.

Victoria's motet Super flumina babylonis was published in the same collection as the Salve Regina. The psalm setting is rather consistently homophonic with some interest canonic moments for emphasis, and frequent changes in metre and rhythm, as well as using the tutti moments for great emphasis. The Marian antiphon Alma Redemptoris Mater uses the full eight parts quite sparingly. The choir gave a nice relaxed performance, bringing out Victoria's familiar vibrant textures.

There was a tradition with magnificat settings to alternate polyphony with plainchant. Victoria's Magnificat Primi Toni is set for double choir with all verses set polyphonically but in fact Victoria took many verses from two previous four-part Magnificats each of  which set alternate verses (one setting odd and the other even), only adding a few new sections for double choir. Whatever the work's origins, Damerell and the Zenobia Consort made it a fine conclusion to their consort.

Though based in Madrid, the choir has a strong connection to Avila where the group acts as host choir for courses and seminars on Victoria. Their next one runs from 27 July to 1 August 2014, see their website for details.

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