Victoria - Lamentations of Jeremiah
"Victoria's nine Lamentations contain some of his most intense, mystical and moving music and rank alongside the Requiem as one of his greatest achievements." Peter Phillips
This recording was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2011.
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Artistic Quality: 10. Sound Quality: 10.
Among the dozens of memorable Tallis Scholars recordings over the past 30 years, this one stands as one of the most purely beautiful - vocally, sonically, and interpretively. Victoria's music always has suited the ensemble well, but this lineup of voices - gone are mainstays Francis Steele, Charles Daniels, Tessa Bonner, Deborah Roberts, Sally Dunkley, et al. (only Caroline Trevor and Donald Greig remain from the 1990s) - is extraordinarily compatible, making all the right things happen musically, from the clearly defined lines and unified phrasing and expressive nuances, to the achievement of an ensemble sound that, more than in any past Tallis Scholars configuration, effectively brings the soprano voices into the fold. Further, there's a tension in the lines, a manner of vocal articulation and of "feeding" the harmonies, that's perfectly expressive of the texts, and the result is a marvel of tone and temperament and choral singing at its most artful and stylistically informed.
These Lamentations are not only serious liturgical entities, but they are gorgeous choral works in their own right, and Peter Phillips has been doing this kind of repertoire longer than almost anyone around these days - he knows how to do "gorgeous" and "liturgically correct" both at the same time, and we have him and his superb singers to thank for much of today's serious focus on early and Renaissance choral music that began in the 1980s. Other excellent choirs have recorded these pieces-notably The Sixteen (Coro) and the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge (the latter includes the Responsories of the Second Nocturn, recorded on the now-defunct Conifer label) - but the sheer beauty of the singing and yes, the sensual, secular allure of these performances guarantees the modern listener an experience that can be enjoyed on several levels, from the devoutly spiritual to the more overtly, subversively "Victorian". This is first-class, in every sense.
Stalwarts of the early-music world, the Tallis Scholars mark the 30th anniversary of Gimell Records, their recording label, with this release, which is also the label’s 50th new recording. Rather than opt for celebratory fare, the Scholars and director Peter Phillips present music for the darkest part of the liturgical calendar: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. The settings are by the Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611), whose music has a dark expressiveness all its own. (Also included is a version by the Mexican composer Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla.)
Among other things, the recording shows how little the group’s sonic profile has changed over the years. One hears the same miraculously even blend of voices that the Tallis Scholars have honed over the years. But they also honor the intensity of Victoria’s music, as in the dramatic Second Lamentation for Maundy Thursday (“The daughter of Sion has lost all her beauty’’). Each section ends with the invocation “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, turn to the Lord, your God.’’ The last of those nine settings, scored for eight voices, has a monumentality that should bring chills to even the most hardened listener.
The Tallis Scholars convey this music in the way we've grown to expect: with beauty, accuracy, finesse, poise and a graceful sense of musicality that makes this 30th anniversary recording (which also marks Gimell's 50th release) a joy to listen to from beginning to end. Peter Phillips says he asked the choir for a "more forthright tone" for the main bodies of text, but I'm not sure he got it: the singers are not willing to sacrifice an inch of beauty, even if the text demands it.
But then again, that's what we love about The Tallis Scholars: that angelic, how-do-they-do-it tone, the wonderful balance - music to sigh to. The disc is stunningly recorded in Merton College Chapel, Oxford - if there's a better acoustic for recording music like this in England I'd love to know - and is a winning combination of composer and choir at the top of their game. The Lamentations by Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla, born in Malaga, and for many years Maestro de Capilla at Puebla Cathedral in Mexico, is another fine work, sung here with a little more intensity than the Victoria.
A quick look at the extensive discography of the Spanish composer Tomas Luis de Victoria is enough to prove the point: it is the United Kingdom which has provided most of the recent recordings of Spanish sacred music from the golden age. The Tallis Scholars have equally turned their attention to the works of Victoria during the course of their impressive career: firstly with the Requiem (1988), then with the Responses for Tenebrae (1990), and finally with these Lamentations which, more than twenty years later, attest to the marvellous sensibility of the group and to the durability of an inimitable vocal style.
From the first note one recognises what makes the Tallis Scholars unique: a flawless sound, perfect intonation, and above all an overall timbre which has a colour difficult to define: precise and expressive at the same time (‘Et egressus est a filia’ from the second Lamentation for Maundy Thursday is a memorable example). The economy of musical means which characterise Victoria’s Lamentations affects all the elements of the writing, including the final verse of each lament (‘Jerusalem convertere’) where Victoria maintains a constant sobriety at a moment when other composers often opt for a more perfumed language. This sobriety finds an echo in the sound-world with which the Tallis Scholars respond to him; and the plaintive way in which the Hebrew letters unfold with the suppleness of calligraphy suspended in mid-air is literally fascinating. None of the effects in the Tallis’s carefully judged aesthetic revel too much in abstract sound. But then one hears nothing too heavy or austerely dry in their interpretation either: on the contrary the listener is able to perceive the superb modal architecture of the cycle, in which Victoria’s changing vocal orchestrations wonderfully capture the essence of each lamentation.
Back in 1990 when The Tallis Scholars were celebrating Gimell's tenth birthday, David Fallows wrote of their first disc 'It is hard to think of a record label having had a more auspicious debut or one that so clearly forecast what was to come over the next decade, in terms of both repertory and performance quality'. Their combination of ultra-refined and disciplined singing has had an enormous effect on the way polyphony has been sung for 30 years, and it's a great pleasure to see that their influence and excellence shows no sign of waning. David Fallows' comments are just as pertinent today as they were twenty years ago.
Excelling in the exquisite delicacy of Victoria's upper-voiced sections, there is something radiant about the way this whole disc is performed. Rather than being sung at, we are invited to eavesdrop on a very intimate and refined sound world that is rarely heard in settings of these famous Lamentation texts. Peter Phillips eschews obvious dynamic surges in the darker verses and maintains delicate phrasing at all times. Intensity is never lost, but neither is it forced. His interpretation is true to the original battle cry of the early music revival: letting the music speak for itself. Without the thickness of interpretation that choirs often bring to Victoria, his Italian qualities come to the fore and one can hear, quite starkly, what a debt his music owes to Palestrina.
When do the Tallis Scholars pause for breath? Nowhere, it seems, in the gliding vocal beauties of Victoria, Spain's 16th-century master composer, at his most eloquent in these Lamentation settings. Peter Phillips's veteran group field a blended tone of astonishing purity, with no notes fussily manicured or stamped out by a machine. There's bliss in hearing them sing the four syllables of the word "Jerusalem", which opens each Lamentation's refrain. Harmonies, too, keep bewitching the ear.
The Council of Trent was held in four sessions between 1545 and 1563. It provided an answer to the ever-encroaching reformation movement and had far-reaching effects not least on church music, which the Cardinals believed was supposed primarily to serve the liturgy - not excessively embellish it - and so provide a vehicle for the word of God. The composers of that time were faced with the difficulty of having to write in a newly narrow set of musical conventions, and give up freer forms.
Any composer wanting to give his music an individual character had to make use of small and subtle gestures. So it is hardly surprising that only a few of them of that period are established today. Some stand out amongst the few: Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1514-1594) and Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611). About the latter, a Spaniard by birth who stayed in Rome for many years, it is said that he wrote his passionate and mystic compositions out of a particularly strong inner piety. Maybe that is why they still seem so inspiring and fervent today, as they must have done 400 years ago.
On the 50th Gimell record in 30 years The Tallis Scholars have combined nine Lamentations of Jeremiah (three each for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday). They are supplemented by a work of the Spanish-Mexican composer Juan Guitérrez de Padilla. Hardly any other ensemble worldwide has more experience and competence with this kind of music. The result is an exemplary presentation of this unusually densely-scored and, for the contemporary listener, hypnotic music.
One of the most influential choral recordings of our time was of Victoria's Tenebrae Responsories, sung with raw passion half a century ago by the Westminster Cathedral Choir under George Malcolm. Over their 30 years of recording, the Tallis Scholars have always cultivated a far smoother, more harmonious texture: Victoria's Lamentations, also for the Holy Week liturgy, are less dramatic than the Responsories, but are powerfully intense and desolate. Under Peter Phillips the pungency of the text is occasionally sacrificed to the beauty of the sound, but the balance is perfect and the recording (in Merton College chapel) is glorious.
In March 1980 The Tallis Scholars made their very first recording for the Gimell label, a celebrated programme that included Allegri’s Miserere. Since then the Gimell label has issued a steady stream of acclaimed recordings by the ensemble and the Gimell story is one of consistent success and artistic excellence. This new CD, which is timed to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of that first recording, also happens to be the fiftieth new recording on the label.
Superficially, one might have looked for such an anniversary release to consist of music that is more obviously celebratory in tone. However, though the music recorded here is solemn in nature the disc can be said very fairly to be a celebration of the core virtues both of the label and of The Tallis Scholars. Thus the quality of the performances is absolutely excellent. Furthermore, though there’s nothing remotely stuffy or academic about the music making, the performances are clearly rooted in very sound scholarship. Then there’s also the extremely good recorded sound to consider and the high calibre of the documentation. In short, this CD is fully up to the long-established traditions of the Gimell house.
The three days leading up to Easter Sunday – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday – have always been days of special significance in the Christian church. In the Roman Catholic tradition these three days – the Triduum – are marked by liturgies of special solemnity during which the Passion and Death of Christ are marked and contemplated prior to the celebration of the Resurrection. Naturally, much of the liturgical observance during these days is meditative in nature. Nowhere was observance of the solemnity of the Triduum more marked than in Counter Reformation Spain and the music recorded here is suitably intense and thoughtful. Victoria composed this music to be sung at the office of Matins on each of the three days.
There are three Lamentations for each of the three days and every one ends with the poignant phrase ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deus tuum’ (‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, turn to the Lord your God’). These phrases bring a musical and literary unity to the music, though it’s very important to remember that originally they would not have all been heard together. However, I think there’s a very strong case for hearing them as a sequence. Indeed, as I listened it struck me that in these pieces we almost get something of a microcosm of the Triduum, even if the texts themselves, which significantly pre-date the birth of Christ, make no direct reference to the events of Holy Week.
Victoria’s music is wonderfully intense, very affecting and expressive. It’s also extremely beautiful. Peter Phillips and his gifted singers perform them outstandingly well, realising marvellously what Phillips refers to as the “plangent austerity” of the music. As one listens everything sounds so natural and inevitable as Victoria’s long phrases unfold. Technique such as this is the result of what must have been painstaking preparation yet the performances never sound at all studied. I was interested to read that Peter Phillips had encouraged his singers to put more intensity into the main body of the text of each Lamentation than into the ‘Jerusalem’ phrases. They certainly respond with the intensity that he sought. For example, they impart great tension to the passage in the second Maundy Thursday Lamentation that begins with the words ‘Et egressus est a filia Sion omnis decor eius’ (‘The daughter of Sion has lost all her beauty’). Later on, sample the depth of feeling in the singing of the words ‘Ego vir videns paupertatem meum’ (‘I am the man who has seen affliction’), which occur in the third Good Friday Lamentation. The third and last Lamentation for Holy Saturday is a little different in that the text is an overt prayer. This is the longest of the nine pieces and it’s a heartfelt supplication by the prophet. The Tallis Scholars reserve some of their most fervent singing for this piece and it’s as moving as anything you’ll hear on the disc.
In addition to Victoria’s music we’re offered the Maundy Thursday Lamentations by Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla. He is an interesting character, one of a host of Iberian musicians who journeyed to Latin America in the sixteenth- and seventeenth centuries to assist in the evangelisation of the New World through the provision of liturgical music in the many churches and cathedrals built by the conquistadors. It’s not known exactly when Padilla emigrated but by October 1622 he was cantor and assistant Master of the Music at the cathedral in Puebla, Mexico and seven years later be was promoted to the post of Maestro de Capilla at the cathedral, a post that he held until his death. Padilla’s Lamentations, which are scored for six voices (SSATTB), are performed in an edition by Bruno Turner. I don’t think that Padilla quite matches the intensity of Victoria’s settings but the music is still very impressive indeed and once again it’s performed with The Tallis Scholars’ fine mixture of finesse and commitment.
Throughout the whole programme the standard of singing is of the very highest order. Tuning, blend and ensemble are immaculate. The voices are balanced impeccably and the diction is admirably clear. Furthermore, the recorded sound that engineer Philip Hobbs has produced is really lovely and pleasingly atmospheric. He has managed to convey an aural image that is at once spacious yet intimate, giving a very clear and present sonic image of the singers. As I indicated earlier, this CD is in the best traditions of the house. It is, in short, an outstanding release that celebrates the thirtieth anniversary of Gimell in the most distinguished manner possible.
This release, celebrating the 30th anniversary* of the Tallis Scholars, is also the group’s 50th recording for its own Gimell label. These landmarks amply justify the idealism of the group’s founder and director, Peter Phillips, who in 1980 tested his conviction that the market for Renaissance polyphony was far wider than previously believed. Victoria’s Lamentations of Jeremiah is suitably great music for such an occasion — intense, condensed and directly and darkly expressive in the way only Iberian music, and perhaps only this remarkable composer, can be. Completing the recital are the early-17th-century Lamentations of the Mexico-based Juan Gutierrez de Padilla, equally powerful, rich-textured music.
Editor's note: *unfortunately Mr Pettitt got his facts wrong here, this release marks the 30th anniversary of the founding of Gimell; The Tallis Scholars were founded in 1973.
The Sunday Times
As Peter Phillips points out in his sleeve notes to his choir's beautifully understated recording of one of the greatest achievements of Spanish Golden Age polyphony, the expressive intensity driving Victoria's music makes it instantly identifiable in a way that the works of his predecessors and contemporaries never quite are. The music of Morales, Guerrero, Lobo or Padilla may be fluent and seraphically beautiful, but it never suggests the individuality of Victoria at his finest.
The Lamentations, nine settings of texts from the Old Testament book of Jeremiah, were published in Rome in 1585, shortly before Victoria's return to Spain. They were designed to be sung on the three days leading up to Easter Sunday, the darkest period in the church calendar and the perfect liturgical context for Victoria's dramatic austerity. That quality is wonderfully captured by the 16 mixed voices of the Tallis Scholars, with their perfectly natural phrasing and carefully weighted tone; the recording, made in the chapel of Merton College, Oxford, has the same naturalness and rapt presence.