Proms 2011 – Late-night Victoria

Dum complerentur
Lamentations for Good Friday
Officium defunctorum (Requiem)

Tallis Scholars
Peter Phillips

Reviewed by: Edward Clark

Reviewed: 4 August, 2011
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This year marks the 400th-anniversary of Tomás Luis de Victoria’s death. Not many people know that! One reason is that he is not immediately recognised as being at the top of the European Renaissance movement headed by such composers as Palestrina and Lassus. We may recall his name, in a British context, by remembering Britten writing an early organ piece based on a Theme of Victoria’s. A second, perhaps more-important reference is the statement reputedly made by John Tavener, who said he lost interest in Western European music after Victoria.

Victoria’s devoted his life to the Church, moving from Spain to Rome as a child, taking Holy Orders and remaining resolute in his Christian faith until his death, exclusively composing sacred music, three examples of which were chosen by Peter Phillips for Tallis Scholars to perform in this tribute Prom. Dum complerentur was the five-minute opener, written by a young man transplanted to the Italian musical environment. This is a bright florid-sounding five-voice setting seemingly filled with hope and confidence.The Lamentations that followed proved altogether different. Each of the three was gently paced, exhibiting a dignified serenity. This is music purged of undue rhetoric. It is worth remembering that Victoria was a contemporary of the Englishman William Byrd and the lack of flamboyance in both composers’ music is surely shared more than with the more-expressive Italian masters.

This subdued, deeply liturgical manner appears throughout the last work performed, Officium defunctorum (Requiem) written near the end of Victoria’s life (1603) for the funeral of his patron, the Dowager Empress Maria of Austria, whom he had served for over fifteen years on his return to Spain. This 40-minute setting majestically cast its spell, so that, closing our eyes, we were surely part of some great religious ceremony within high-vaulted ceilings and dark cloisters. Avoiding all unnecessary frippery created a work of great beauty, relatively simple in outline but imbued with a deeply-felt emotion that combines meditative and dramatic qualities.

Peter Phillips said in his short mid-concert interview that the choir had performed this work a few days earlier in Norway to offer balm to a hurt nation’s soul. Indeed it was possible, hearing these long-breathed lines free of undue complexity, to take a step back and ponder our mad, bad world, allowing the music to seek the release-button to enter, even if for a moment, a world of serenity and dignity, one possessing self-healing qualities. This was a concert to treasure, ending with Alonso Lobo’s Versa est in Luctum as an encore (the same text as found in Officium defunctorum), delivered by expert singers under their totally dedicated and inspiring conductor.

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