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October 21, 2008

Some Sacred Sounds of Old Spain

New York Times:

The Tallis Scholars, regulars in the Miller series, turned up at the acoustically vibrant Church of St. Mary the Virgin near Times Square on Thursday evening to sing works by two generations of Spanish Renaissance composers.

The older generation, represented by Francisco Guerrero, had the first and last word: his richly harmonized motet “Maria Magdalene” opened the program, and his more densely textured but equally fluid settings of “Ave Virgo Sanctissima” and “Regina Caeli” closed it. Between them, the choir sang works by Alonso Lobo, a student of Guerrero’s, and Tomás Luis de Victoria, the most celebrated Spanish composer of the time (partly because he spent 23 years in Rome, hearing and perhaps studying with Palestrina).

The Victoria works were in many ways the most striking. In the Pentecost motet “Dum Complerentur,” the rush of distinct vocal lines vividly evokes the text, which describes “a voice from heaven like a rushing mighty wind” filling the house in which the disciples were worshipping. More compelling still was Victoria’s “Lamentations for Holy Saturday,” a serene if impassioned setting of passages from Jeremiah’s penitential text. Victoria’s harmony is simple and his themes are melodically constricted, but these scarcely adorned materials yield music of haunting purity and depth.

Lobo’s “Missa Maria Magdalene,” though less moving than Victoria’s Lamentations, has its own considerable charms. It is based on Guerrero’s “Maria Magdalene,” which immediately preceded it on the program, but you could hear the shift in generational priorities: where Guerrero sought a unified, chordal texture, with the top soprano line soaring above, Lobo was more interested in giving his vocal lines greater independence and in setting the text in distinct sections, with stopping points and changes of tempo rather than in a seamless flow of ideas.

Peter Phillips led gracefully paced performances attentive to the ways each composer made the music move to the demands of the texts. And the singers performed these works with power and assurance, and a virtually vibrato-free sound. No doubt they were buoyed by the church’s reverberance, which made the 10-voice choir sound twice its size without taking a toll on clarity.

Posted by acapnews at October 21, 2008 12:02 AM

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