Victoria: Officium defunctorum, 1603

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LABELS: Symphonia
WORKS: Officium defunctorum, 1603
PERFORMER: La Stagione Armonica/Sergio Balestracci
Victoria’s monumental Officium defunctorum was written during the twilight years of his life in Spain for the funeral of the Empress Maria of Austria. With its rich, six-voice scoring, luscious sonorities and long-breathed lines, it is a masterpiece of controlled intensity. Several British choirs have recorded the work, but some listeners may find their approach – with its pure and ‘white-washed’ sound – too deeply rooted in the Anglican tradition. La Stagione Armonica’s performance is the complete antithesis of this: full-bodied and heavy with Catholic fervour. Conductor Sergio Balestracci takes an expansive view of the Mass, ever aware of the measured tread of its plainsong cantus firmus.


The sombre tones of Victoria’s music are effectively underscored by a bajon (an early type of bassoon frequently used in Spanish church music) – and one of Balestracci’s few concessions to historically informed performance practice. There is an underlying spirituality and gravitas to this account, but it is marred by technical problems: intonation suffers when the singers force their voices to achieve heightened expression, choral ensemble can be slack and the chant intonations are sung with an intrusive, ‘bleating’ vibrato. There is sincerity and commitment here in plenty, but stylistically it sounds like a performance from another era. Kate Bolton