In a week of richly dramatic ceremonies, one of the most evocative liturgies in the Catholic celebration of Holy Week is that of Tenebrae. Latin for darkness or shadows, Tenebrae takes place at night in a church illuminated with fifteen candles that one by one are extinguished, eventually leading to the darkness which gives the rite its name. The stark, expressive settings of the responsories by Tomás Luis de Victoria have long been recognised as having a special affinity for this service.
Given there are 18 responsories (to be sung over three nights), Stile Antico sensibly brings a variety of pace to its performances, as well as following the longstanding tradition of singing some of the upper-voice settings with lower voices. Interpolating some plainsong Lamentations varies the texture and alludes to the fact that Victoria’s polyphony would have been heard in the midst of chant.
The texts are full of references to betrayal, injustice and sacrifice, and the singers inject plenty of Latin passion into their clear, English choral sound, Tradiderunt Me being a vibrant example. By contrast, the dark, lower-voice treatment of Tenebrae Factae Sunt brings an appropriate meditative melancholy to the music. Victoria’s plentiful word-painting is also sensitively handled throughout. O Domine Jesu Christe, a six-part motet (more florid in style than the responsories) makes a fervent close to this welcome survey of some of the 16th century’s simplest yet most enduring music.
Composition: Tenebrae Responsories
Performer: Stile Antico
Catalogue Number: Harmonia Mundi HMM902272