Victoria: Ave Regina caelorum; Magnificat septimi toni; Dixit Dominus

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: Ave Regina caelorum; Magnificat septimi toni; Dixit Dominus
PERFORMER: Westminster Cathedral Choir/Martin Baker
Victoria’s Marian music here receives two very different interpretations. The first is an assemblage by scholar Jon Dixon of Marian music in the form of a synthetic Vesper service, while the second presents the core movements of an actual Victoria Mass – and contextualises them by exploring some of the Marian masterpieces used in the first disc. In short, Owens’s ‘Vespers’ programme reinvents while Baker’s gives a ‘straight’ representation, a divide that characterises the qualities of each interpretation as well. Daring tempi and breathtaking contrasts are two primary means by which Matthew Owens brings to life Victoria’s intensely personal response to the Marian texts. Behind the grandeur of the composer’s triple-choir polyphony lurks an internal dialogue voiced in reduced, alternatim-style sections. The Exon Singers move fluidly between these two poles, aided by an acoustic that blends whispered petitions as precisely as triumphant proclamations. Although the acoustic might blur Victoria’s trademark voice-crossing or his play with such forbidden intervals as tritones, the gain in dramatic impact amply justifies the trade-off. By contrast, the Westminster Cathedral Choir imposes upon Victoria’s music a reading in which rich counterpoint and overwhelming chordal sonorities overwhelm any intimacy. The cathedral’s spaciousness and the organ’s resonance force the vocalists to emphasise either the words or rhythm of even the most delicate line; consequently, a reflective Victoria cannot emerge. The choir’s celebrated strengths – distinct vocal lines, pristine diction, razor-sharp intonation – give full play to Victoria’s sumptuous polyphony, but also inhibit the emergence of any personal narrative such as that the Exon Singers achieve through more nuanced gestures. Should Victoria’s genius serve to inspire a world-renowned cathedral choir, or should native choral tradition be adapted to explore the composer’s dramatic potential? While Westminster Cathedral’s approach thrills aurally, the Exon Singers compel emotionally. The choice is yours. Berta Joncus