Thursday, April 7, 2011

Of late I've been getting a short course in the music of Tomás Luis de Victoria; the Tallis Scholars featured him prominently in their BEMF appearance last week, even as the Handel and Haydn Society paired him with Francis Poulenc in "Harry's Vocal Voyage," a program which, despite its rather buoyant title, proved a poignant face-off between the sacred music of two very different epochs. Or was it really a face-off? Sometimes it felt more like a hand-off; for under the sensitive direction of Harry Christophers, the sensibilities of Victoria and Poulenc did seem to mysteriously align across the centuries.

In some ways, this consonance shouldn't be so surpising, even though the composers are separated by roughly three hundred years. Both were obsessed with matters of faith, and wrote mostly (or only) sacred music; and both toyed with dissonance (or at least Victoria toyed with what counted as dissonance for his time). Their seeming twinship most clearly derives, however, from a shared sense of emotion pushing against structure; they consistently penned statements of faith that feel as if a rising well of mournfulness is about to spill over its enclosure of prayer and into a cascading wail of passion.

We don't know much about Victoria's private life (aside from the fact that he became a priest); we do know that tragedy sparked Poulenc's turn to the sacred. A wealthy gay bon vivant in his youth, the composer first became known as a member of the loose-knit musical alliance Les six. The death of a close friend in a car wreck, followed by a grief-stricken pilgrimage to the gaunt "Black Madonna" of Rocamadour (at left), changed all that; from then on, sacred music - or music devoted to spiritual subjects - would dominate the composer's output.

Poulenc never entirely lost his clever sensualism, it's true (in mid-career he was famously summed up as "half monk and half delinquent"), but Christophers chose for his program works that all but throbbed with grief (particularly the four "motets from a time of penitence," written soon after his friend's death).  And Christophers sculpted his selections from Victoria (particularly the gorgeous Litaniae Beatae Mariae) with a far greater sense of drama and variety than the Tallis Scholars had hazarded - indeed, he drew out a shockingly lush sensualism from pieces like Victoria's Nigra sum sed formosa (drawn from the famously erotic Song of Solomon). Of course Christophers tended to the particulars of polyphony, homophony, antiphonal singing and all the rest - he did no violence to Victoria stylistically, and the chorus sounded wonderful - but he didn't seem absorbed in the technical issues for their own sake; they were simply a means to powerful emotional ends. And he seemed to seek heightened extremes wherever he could; not for nothing did Christophers compare Victoria's musical achievement to the swirling expressionism of El Greco (whose "Nobleman with a Hand on his Chest" I chose to stand in for Victoria in the graphic above).

But then Christophers is always a bit of a period-music showman (and I mean that as high praise); he opened the concert, for instance, with a musical coup de théâtre only possible in the setting of an actual house of worship (here Harvard's handsome Memorial Church). Christophers had his sopranos begin the early plainsong Salve Regina from the atrium, so that to his audience, their floating vocal line seemed to be emanating from the walls of the nave; the effect was ethereal and haunting, like listening to an approach of angels. The piece also served, of course, as a grounding in the style which Victoria and Poulenc would develop to such heights. But while moments like these lingered in my memory as I left the concert, I also found myself wondering: what does it mean when "period" and "modern" composers seem to share so intimate a dialogue? In other words, at the end of Harry's vocal voyage, which "period" were we really in?

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