The Sixteen – Tomás Luis de Victoria

O vos omnes
Super flumina Babylonis
Ave Regina caelorum (a 5)
Vadam et circuibo
Ave Regina caelorum (a 8)
Quam pulchri sunt
Nigra sum
Requiem Officium Defunctorum

The Sixteen
Harry Christophers

Reviewed by: Rob Witts

Reviewed: 28 March, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

The music of Tomás Luis de Victoria (c.1548-1611) stands at the high-water mark of religious art inspired by the rulings of the Council of Trent. Following an illustrious period in Rome, at the very heart of sacred music, he returned to his native Spain to spend the last 24 years of his life as chaplain and choirmaster at a convent in Madrid.

This programme given by The Sixteen presented a selection of works that spanned his long career, culminating in the magnificent Requiem of 1605.

This is music of austere beauty, the simplicity of the motet “O vos omnes” contrasting with the more complex antiphonal writing in the five- and eight-part settings of the “Ave Regina”. The six-part “Nigra sum” (from ‘Song of Songs’) hinted at earthier concerns, and the ecstatic rush to its conclusion made a fine end to the first half.

However, the Mass that formed the second half of the concert was a richer experience still (and recorded on The Sixteen’s own label). Victoria constructs a sonically lavish and varied structure from plainsong, which is paraphrased in the fashion of the time; some sections begin in monody before flowering into harmony, the best example being the ‘Sanctus’, in which the choir bursts into wonderful life on the word ‘Heaven’ – a religious coup de théâtre that takes the breath away.

While it might have been more viscerally exciting to hear the music in the grand ecclesiastical spaces for which it was composed, the immediate acoustic of the Queen Elizabeth Hall made audible the sheer perfection of technique of The Sixteen. It was impossible to pick out individual voices, so well were they blended, and every line in Victoria’s complex polyphony was rendered clear and distinct. While purists might query the use of female soprano voices, the beauty of the choral sound was justification enough for this listener.

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