Thursday 11 April 2024

A little bit of magic: Victoria's Tenebrae Responsories sung one to a part at the original pitch by I Fagiolini and Robert Hollingworth

Victoria: Tenebrae Responsories; I Fagiolini, Robert Hollingworth; CORO

Victoria: Tenebrae Responsories; I Fagiolini, Robert Hollingworth; CORO
Reviewed 9 April 2024

Just one voice to a part, just intonation and a wonderfully expressive approach to line, all combined with lovely poise to make this disc a little bit of magic.

Victoria's Tenebrae Responsories are completely wonderful and few choristers can be entirely ignorant of them, most ensembles attempt some of them at some time. Usually performed in modern editions for standard SATB at a pitch that makes them work, they were intended for a rather different line up using either low-soprano, high-tenor, baritone and bass or two sopranos, high-tenor and baritone. And almost certainly with only one voice to a part, sung a four lower than written according to the conventions used at the time.

This original arrangement has rarely made it onto disc. Famously the music was recorded at high pitch, without the expected transposition, by the choir of Westminster Cathedral in the 1950s, a recording that Robert Hollingworth describes as highly dramatic! We are have been having similar discussions about Victoria's Requiem and Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610 where the original, when correctly performed, eschews the dramatic use of extremes of register and ensures that all singers have a part firmly in the centre of the voice to subtle yet highly expressive effect.

Victoria wrote the Tenebrae Responsories in Rome where they were published in 1585. Whilst in Rome he had various official positions at the German College and Pontifical Roman Seminary and in 1575, Victoria was appointed Maestro di Capella at S. Apollinare. Quite what line-up of singers these institutions used for their services I am not sure, but we can imagine them following the Sistine Chapel and using single voices with a castrato on the top line. On this disc on the Coro label, Robert Hollingworth directs I Fagiolini in Victoria's Tenebrae Responsories recorded just one voice to a part by Rebecca Lea – soprano, Martha McLorinan – mezzo-soprano, Matthew Long – tenor, Greg Skidmore – baritone, Frederick Long – bass.

The recording is made Milton Abbey and picks up the voices wonderfully, there is space round them but there is nowhere to hide. Just four singers and Victoria's spacious polyphony, tuning, placement and expressive line are all.

Victoria set 18 texts, the Matins Responsories for Nocturn II and Nocturn III for each of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. They were never intended to be heard as a group, after all a responsory is a response to something, here a reading, and Victoria also set the readings themselves for Nocturn I. If you did the complete Tenebrae service using Victoria's settings, you would have quite a substantial service lasting a significant length of time, but there would also be a nice balance between chant and polyphony. It would, in a way, be quite magical and we must hope that someone does it on disc. 

But for this disc, I Fagiolini concentrate on the Matins Responsories and after each group of three (i.e. after each Nocturn) Robert Hollingworth reads a couple of poems from Christopher Reid's 2009 poetry collection, A Scattering, reflections on his wife's dying and his own response to that process. This is poetry that has themes that pick up on elements of the Biblical texts without being too obvious, and it is also moving poetry in its own right, beautifully read by Hollingworth.

The music uses what is often called just intonation, and what Hollingworth refers to acoustically pure. There is a delightful and comprehensive explanation of this on the I Fagiolini website. When well implemented, as here, it brings something that bit special to the performance and the singers poise in creating this perfect acoustic blend is magical.

This is music for vocal ensemble, four voices balanced and responsive, but remaining individual and not blended to death. The advantage of this approach is that spaciousness and austerity of Victoria's writing really makes the music shine. He rarely use complex constructional tricks like Palestrina, instead his expressive lines can often seem wide apart and austere, yet here there is a rich expressivity to the whole.

I enjoyed (if that is the right word) Reid's poetry though I have to confess that I am not quite sure how I would feel about hearing it repeatedly and frankly, the sequence of just Victoria suits me fine.

Tomás Luis de Victoria (c.1548-1611) - Tenebrae Responsories
Christopher Reid (born 1949) - poems from A Scattering
I Fagiolini (Rebecca Lea, Martha McLorinan, Matthew Long, Greg Skidmore, Frederick Long)
Robert Hollingworth (director and reader)
Recorded 18-20 July 2023 at Milton Abbey
CORO COR1604 1CD [71:50]

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