- Missa Pro defunctis II, for 6 voices
Tomás Luís de Victoria's "Requiem" mass, or Missa Pro defunctis, was written in 1603 for the funeral of Austrian empress Maria, published two years later, and very quickly held up all over Europe as an exemplar of Renaissance polyphony. It has retained that status down to the present day with its waves of perfectly shaped counter-reformation polyphony setting off deeply somber content. There are lots of recordings of this mass by flawless English choirs who deliver exciting renditions of the work's rich, dark textures; a fine one is by British choir Tenebrae. But there is also room for a reading that attempts to place the work in its historical context, and that's what's provided here by Italian group La Stagione Armonica under Sergio Balestracci. The six parts of the mass are divided among nine sopranos, six tenors, and four each of altos and basses, a group slightly larger than what would have been heard in Victoria's time, and with a modern female presence in the soprano and alto parts besides. In other respects, though, this recording brings the listener into the world of the empress' funeral, which like any other mass would have interspersed the polyphonic movements among sections of plainchant. In fact, noted Balestracci, Victoria goes even further: "The exceptional circumstances of this funeral induced the composer to place side by side plainsong with polyphony, which is also pervaded by plainchant." That is, even the polyphonic movements have sections introduced by phrases of plainchant, and the entire mass holds together in layers. Sample the Sanctus (track 11), and note how the "Pleni sunt coeli" section, often belted out by choirs in its high range, here becomes a subtler response to the small bit of chant that's incorporated at this point. Elsewhere, answering larger sections of chant, the choir seems to be participating in a funerary dialogue, not intoning timeless texts. Certainly Balestracci's reading is not going to replace more traditional versions, but those who love Victoria's magnificent "Requiem" will hear it in a new way here.