Together Holy Week and Easter constitute the high point of the Christian year, and over the centuries a vast amount of music has been written to accompany the liturgical celebrations. This set gathers together, on three well-filled CDs, the music for Holy Week composed by Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611), unquestionably one of the great masters of the Renaissance polyphonic style. Many of these pieces have appeared here and there on other recordings, but never before have I seen them presented as a unity.
The music is arranged chronologically, beginning with Palm Sunday. The great majority of the music is devoted to the Easter Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, and particularly to the Tenebrae services traditionally held during the night. Victoria composed three lamentations for each night office, masterfully balancing the agony and tears of the text against the warm beauty of the polyphony. They are magnificent pieces. For Good Friday he has supplied a moving setting of the Reproaches, which were (and sometimes still are) sung during the Veneration of the Cross. The set concludes with music for the Matins of Easter.
Along with these major elements we also find a variety of antiphons, responsories, hymns, and motets, sometimes composed by Victoria and sometimes drawn from the Gregorian treasure-house. The whole has been arranged into a quasi-liturgical setting, permitting us to hear how the polyphonic compositions would have alternated with the more austere chant melodies in an actual Holy Week liturgy. The singers have even gone so far as to include two lengthy (15-20 min.) sung settings of the Passion narrative, from St. Matthew and St. John. These are very spare settings — nothing like Bach’s more familiar works — entirely monophonic apart from the brief cries of the crowd. Fittingly, they have used Victoria’s own settings of these short polyphonic outbursts. Unfittingly, but understandably, the Passion narratives are incomplete, intended more to give the aesthetic flavour than to be faithful presentations of the Biblical text. (Listeners who would like the unabridged experience might seek out the Theatre of Voices’ recording of a monophonic St. Matthew Passion, in which the brief polyphonic episodes have been composed by Victoria’s contemporary Orlandus Lassus.)
The choirs on these recordings are La Colombina and Schola Antiqua, both, like Victoria himself, from Spain. I’ve never heard of either of them before, but on the strength of these performances I’m ready to hear more. They are small ensembles, together composed of just 22 voices. The singing is of high quality, especially considering that the recording was made live. There are occasional waverings and strainings, but in this emotionally charged music that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and the problems are not distracting. For the most part the voices are strong and full, with good blend and tuning, minimal vibrato, and an appropriate solemnity reigns. The recording is also good, with a warm resonance around the voices that remains unobtrusive. The aural image I have is of voices emerging from darkness and retreating again, which is wholly proper given the context. The packaging of the discs is also admirable, but unfortunately the texts, though provided in Latin, are without translations.