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Nordic Voices sing Victoria

Nordic Voices sing Victoria

Chandos  CHSA 0402

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Vocal


Victoria: Benedicta sit sancta Trinitas, Vexilla Regis ‘more hispano’, Vidi speciosam, Quem vidistis, pastores, Salve, Regina, O Domine Jesu Christe, Ardens est cor meum, Congratulamini mihi, Nigra sum sed formosa, Tu es Petrus, Vadam, et circumbio civitatem

Nordic Voices


The Norwegian six-member a cappella group Nordic Voices here presents the extraordinary polyphonic music of Tomás Luis de Victoria, a Spanish composer whose music has continued to move people for more than 400 years, crossing geographical, cultural, and even religious barriers.

This surround-sound recording comes ten years after a ‘warm, consistent and moving’ (BBC Music) album of Lamentations, which featured pieces by sixteenth-century composers, including Four Lessons by Victoria. Examples of the composer’s exceptional output, characterised by a careful setting of the text and an ability to control texture by a constant grouping and regrouping of different voices, here meet the artistic resourcefulness, versatility, technical precision, and freshness of the young ensemble.

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Review by John Miller - September 4, 2017

The title of this SACD from Chandos' early music Chaconne series is "Nordic Voices sing Victoria". Tomás Luis de Victoria - composer, priest, organist and singer, is now regarded as the most famous figure of music in 16th-century Spain. Born c.1548, his musical interest as a choirboy began in Ávila Cathedral. Later, in 1565, he became cantor at the German College in Rome, founded by St. Ignatius Loyola. This was the religious side of his work, and the more practical occupation was at the Pontifical Roman Seminary. God and Music! There he held the positions of chapel-master and instructor of plainsong, and he became a priest in 1579. In 1587 Phillip II had Victoria return to Spain as chaplain to his sister, the Dowager Empress María, daughter of Charles V. He was noted for his expertise in the organ as well as choral compositions, and had a 2 year visit return to Rome, partly to attend Palestrina's funeral in 1594. Returning to Spain, Victoria died in 1611 in the chaplain's residence.

Sotterana Aguirre is the writer of the extensive booklet for this SACD. She is a Professor at the University of the University of Valladol in Spain and at the Tomás Luis de Victoria Virtual Center. I suggest that you read the booklet before listening the music; Prof Aguirre not only leads us through Victoria's history, but provides a lucid account of Victoria's introduction of a greater emotional aspect of music in this recording, which is clearly imbued by the Nordic Voices. She tells us that the famous English composer of Victoria's time, William Byrd, described Victoria as "a most judicious and a sweet composer" (Compleat Gentleman, 1622).

Victoria arrived for his employment in Rome only 2 years after the end of the Council of Trento, one of the most important ecumenical councils of the Roman Catholic Church. A conclusion was to fight with a "Protestant Reformation" in Europe, and the Trento Council also called this the 'Counter-Reformation'. How does music come into this? After the Council, the Clergy came to believe that Music was an evangelisation of many existing compositions, so they encouraged musicians like Victoria to provide more sacred choral pieces - 'Motets'. Defined as "Pious songs vigilantly called motets", such compositions were soon required from Princes, Institutions and various other religious groups. Victoria was quick to join in. It was a genre of sacred choral music in which he enjoyed displaying all his inventive strength, as well as using greater experimentation. He also happily took much higher payments!

Tomás Luis Victoria published a set of 33 motets in Venice in 1572. A photo of its title page appears on the inside front page of the SACD booklet. One section is for 'Works for Six Voices', 11 motets in a cappella ("in the manner of the chapel - no instruments"). The exceptional Nordic Voices have recorded this set with their organisation of 2 sopranos and mezzo-soprano, plus tenor, baritone and bass. All of them are graduates of the Norwegian Academy of Music and the Academy of Academy of Opera and formed the ensemble in 1996. As well as singing, they enjoy a broad musical range of experience from choral conducting to teacher training and abd composition. This all adds to a distinctive range of artistic creativity, versatility and technical precision, very useful for applying imagination and bringing to life the early music from C13th-C16th where the scores have few instructions, if any. It is this training together with the friendship of the group that Nordic Voices has become a world-wide reputation.

In only a few moments of listening, I was enchanted to find myself lifted into a world different to any standard English monastic singing of Victoria's mastery in six-part polyphony. There were instead voices using tonal colouring, clarity in interweaving of each voice, expressive changes in dynamics, dexterity of rich stylistic empathy and nuanced lyrical empathy - I could go on. And I was feeling the same as listeners to both concerts and recordings, that Nordic Voices "have a unanimous sense of purpose, versatility and sheer musicianship that mesmerized listeners" (Washington Post 13:02:12).

Another element of virtuosic skills is that the singers could work individually with the acoustics of the venue, an important way of enhancement, despite the presence of microphones. Chandos chose Ris Church in Oslo, a Romanesque Revival style church, a venue ideal for this venture. Surround sound recording retains the intimacy of the performance, particularly when soloists deliberately float their voices into the acoustics, and the enveloping atmosphere that arises when the six singers are projecting their working together.Not that this was anything annoying; the contrary.

From photographs in the booklet, the Nordic Voices were about 3/4 up from the back of the church. They stood in a semicircle facing towards the back, and engineer Arne Alsekberg (Abbey Road Studios) had the mic array for 5.0 fairly close towards the singers, and this produced a magical arrangement of clarity in the voices, on a 'bed' of warm, rich sound. Interestingly, I found that when the singing stopped, the resonance seemed to collapse from the rear, moving forward, getting to the area of the altar and finally focussed to nothing! Not that this was anything annoying; the contrary.

Note that all 11 Motets are presented in Latin and English, and the very well-produced booklet has texts in English, German & French. I've already mentioned the photo of the front page of Victoria's 1572 collection of Motets. There is also a very thorough set of photos of the Voices. Apart from one of the whole 6 of them in B/W, there are two of each, one taken for Press, the other a picture of them during the recording sessions. A very happy colour photo of the Six inhabits the back cover. The front cover picture is a colour photo of a ruined car enveloped by flowering weeds, by notable photographer Svein Nerdrum, which is part of a set of pictures called "Cars in Decay". Probably there is a philosophic element...?

The impeccable combination of Victoria and Nordic Voices has been captured superbly well on this SACD, and is effective in relaxing the listener in a very pleasant way. Coming back to Sotterana Aguirre, the expert in the booklet, let us finish with her view of the disc: "Please, close your eyes, open your spirit - we are about to begin".

JM 04/09/2017

Copyright © 2017 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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