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  41:3 (01-02 /2018)
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Reviewer: Ronald E. Grames

The six-voice a cappella ensemble Nordic Voices was formed in 1996 and has, since a first recording made for Chandos in 2007, made only one other for this label, Lamentations in 2009. This latest release is a program of six-voice motets by the late Renaissance composer Tomás Luis de Victoria. It is good to have Nordic Voices back on the English label, performing music from this period. There have been other recordings, including an oddly compelling CD with the Norwegian Wind Ensemble of early Spanish dance music on a combination of period and modern instruments, including saxophones (Lawo), and an astounding CD of fiendishly challenging liturgical music by Gisle Kverndokk (Aurora, Fanfare 39:3). These have appeared on other, primarily Norwegian, labels, and are of generally contemporary music, which is Nordic Voices’ other specialty.

This duality of focus says much about the ensemble’s vocal personality. The absolute pitch and rhythmic precision necessary to succeed so brilliantly in modern scores is applied to the music of the 16th-century Spaniard’s music with revelatory results. Lines are delineated with unusual clarity, regardless the intricacy of the counterpoint. Subtleties of color and word interplay are revealed. In comparison with ensembles using larger numbers of singers than the one-to-a-part employed here, the sound is leaner, brighter, and somewhat less glowing. Those preferring a richer choral sound might wish to sample first, but all the virtues of clarity would seem to outweigh any concerns of texture, or at least they do for me, and especially given the appealing quality of the individual voices involved. These are not highly ruminative readings; tempos are on the swifter side, but throughout, the joy that these six singers find in this ecstatic music is manifest.

The 11 motets included in the program come from fairly early in Victoria’s career. All but one were published in his first two collections: Motecta (Venice 1572) and Liber primus qui Missas, Psalmos, Magnificat ad Virginem Dei Matrem Salutationes (Venice 1576) when his work reflected most his contact with the music (and perhaps the person) of Palestrina. Only the Holy Week hymn Vexilla Regis ‘more hispano’ from the Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae (Rome 1585) looks back to Spanish models and expresses in its more austere style the symbolism of the Cross. It likely reflects, as well, for whom it was written—the notes suggest the Castilian church in Rome—and the composer’s growing desire to return to Spain, which was accomplished somewhere around that time.

The copious notes include an unusually in-depth and lively discussion of the motet in Renaissance religious practice, notably the relationship to the rhetorical styles of the day, as well as information on the composer and highlighting of unusual features or history of many of the 11 works sung here. Spanish musicologist and Victoria scholar Soterraña Aguirre-Rincón is as personal in her appeal for this music as are the performances of Nordic Voices, and her writing is a perfect accompaniment. The sound produced by the Chandos engineers is similarly intimate and persuasive. All in all, a more enjoyable and uplifting hour of music is hard to imagine. I only wish there had been a bit more; it was over all too soon.


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