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Tenebrae Responsories

Gramophone praises Tenebrae as best yet

Ed Breen, Gramophone (May 2018)

The works on this disc are taken from Victoria’s Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae (published Rome, 1585), a vast offering of polyphonic music spanning Palm Sunday to Holy Saturday. What is presented here are the Responsories for Tenebrae services, celebrated in the fading daylight as part of a liturgy requiring candles to be sequentially extinguished. It has become customary in modern times to record the Second and Third Nocturns from Victoria’s Tenebrae Responsories for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday in sequence. Divorced from their original context they form an impressively impassioned collection.

This has to be Stile Antico’s best album to date: it’s certainly their most gripping and, as ever with this ensemble, the vocal sound is sumptuous throughout. That they are so engaging in Victoria’s music can be no mere accident: these pieces have a bold recorded history, beginning with George Malcolm’s feisty madrigalian interpretation with Westminster Cathedral Choir (Decca, 5/60) and retaining an imprint of that extrovert approach ever since. Of course, the texts are expressive, atmospheric and so demonstratively set that it is hard to retain an English countenance in performance, and even The Tallis Scholars used an unusually robust sound (Gimell, 1/91). It’s rather thrilling therefore to hear Stile Antico, who often perform Renaissance polyphony calmly, tap in to the dramatic excitement and atmospheric intensity now associated with these works.

In this recording I particularly admire how the singers find a splendid balance between their rich, blended sound and the need for individual vocal grains to emerge at imploring or declamatory moments. Take, for instance ‘Tenebrae factae sunt’ in the Good Friday Responsories: here sung by low voices, delineating the darkness of the Crucifixion from the crying out of Jesus in what must be one of the most intimate performances on record.