Saint or sinner, atheist or agnostic, this recording of Victoria: Tenebrae Responsories (specially crafted nocturnes written for Holy Week) belongs in every collection of those who appreciate that the human voice is unparalleled in degrees of colour and depth of expression.
The thirteen members of Ensemble Corund, discreetly and empathetically reinforced by Eva Hagberg playing a 1992 Fama & Raadgever organ (Maarssen, Netherlands) bring Tomás Luis de Victoria’s compositions to life in a manner that the Spanish composer could only imagine during his lifetime. Much of the credit goes to conductor Stephen Smith who—particularly in the extended offerings “Animam meam dilectam,” and “Caligaverunt oculi mei”—employs well-constructed plans to incorporate the frequent metre/pulse shifts into a unified whole that is at one with the text and rich harmonic palette (“Aestimatus sum” a wondrous example).
The chamber chorus is marvellously balanced (both by Smith and recording engineers Markus and Harry Pawel, recorded in St. Matthew’s Church, Lucerne) and often “rings” the open fifths and cadences (“O vos omnes” positively glows). The diction is as close to consonant perfection as is likely possible and the ability to breathe as one contributes much to the unity of sound.
Quibbles are a matter of taste (the very occasional tendency to “wow” the legato lines) and a bit of strain from the upward-reaching sopranos (“Eram quasi agnus”: all is forgiven by their spectacular entries out of nowhere in “O vos omnes”).
The solo interventions are fine, particularly Tino Brütsch (tenor) and Thomas Moser (bass) in “Ecce quomodo moritur.” Their collective rhythmic surety is as welcome as it is rare.
Over the span of time when the music is performed live (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday), candles are gradually extinguished until only darkness remains. Knowing that, Victoria has crafted the final responsory (“Sepulto Domino”) with a kind of slow motion middle section as “they sealed up the tomb, rolling a stone before the entrance.” The total blackness can be felt as well as heard, yet provides an intrinsic sense of comfort that can assuage the breast of any human—no matter what belief—who has ever been awash in the depths of despair. JWR