fri 19/07/2024

Tenebrae, Short, St John’s Smith Square review - choral majesty in New World marvels | reviews, news & interviews

Tenebrae, Short, St John’s Smith Square review - choral majesty in New World marvels

Tenebrae, Short, St John’s Smith Square review - choral majesty in New World marvels

Radiant self-confidence from a world-class ensemble

Tenebrae: perfectly balanced and blended singersSim Canetty-Clarke

They started as they meant to go on. Randall Thompson’s lush, consoling six-minute Alleluia, written in 1940, couldn’t be a better opener for Tenebrae, one of this country’s finest, most musically alert and expressive vocal ensembles. Technically, the piece is undemanding so a successful performance of it rests entirely upon expressive control.

Their conductor and music director Nigel Short sculpted the sound of his 20 singers to produce gently overlapping waves of the single-word text, ideally phrased with individual and overarching rises and falls. Clean-toned, gleaming soprano lines, perfectly blended altos and, a rarity, restrained tenors with everything subtly grounded by a real bass line (no overly stretched baritones here) without ever feeling overly dictated by it, it was a blissful showcase.

With singing this good it’s easy to miss how strong it actually is because it never draws attention to itself. In their well-constructed programme "Psalms and Prayers from the New World", that was clear in two short works by Eric Whitacre. He’s famous for two things: firstly, for being the only classical composer to have had a contract with Storm modelling agency; secondly, his uniquely rich choral music which has made him America’s most successful choral writer. While an entire evening of Whitacre swiftly hits the law of diminishing returns – his range isn’t wide – performing just two of his pieces underlines his abundant strengths, which Tenebrae might have been born to perform.

The choir’s absolute security and vocal precision allow Whitacre’s trademark multi-part harmonies, his lovely fat clusters of ringing sound, to stack up perfectly. Sung as well as this in an acoustic as generous as St John’s Smith Square, both his ee cummings setting i thank You God for this most amazing day and the frankly gorgeous slow tread of his Sleep simply shimmered. Equally, The Day Is Done by the more sentimental Stephen Paulus – a man who never finds a safely sweet harmony he cannot resist repeating – was given its best possible outing.

Nigel Short elicited a thrillingly focused, penetrating sound

Friede auf Erde (Peace on Earth) is in a different league, one of those pieces that should carry a health warning – not for audiences but for singers. Yes, it’s by Schoenberg whose name alone terrifies conservative audiences but, unexpectedly for the uninitiated, its full-blooded harmonies are beyond lush. Yet the chromatic journeys from chord to chord are so tricky to negotiate that it can easily collapse. It requires rare self-confidence from its singers but Tenebrae has that in spades. Their sound was ardent and radiant and the effect was intoxicating.

Their performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Missa Brevis, one of his least idiosyncratic pieces, took them to another extreme. The score derives from music he wrote for a production of Jean Anouilh’s play about Joan of Arc, The Lark, and not until the persistently interrupted dance-rhythms of the last of the seven tiny movements in the 12-minute work does the piece fully shake off its conscious mimicry of medieval music. But Nigel Short elicited a thrillingly focused, penetrating sound that brought laser-like intensity to the minuscule Gloria and an ideally chilly austerity to the piece as a whole.

Doubts, however, crept in with the two major works. Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, sung here in the reduced chamber version with percussion, harp and organ, lacked attack. David Allsopp’s countertenor solo was an ideal substitute for Bernstein's treble solo, his voice seeming to hang in the air, but elsewhere the piece fell slightly flat because too much text – and, crucially, the intention behind it – was lost, not least by too loose a handling of consonants. The Hebrew text of the fast passages slid by when it should be spat out to communicate its excitement.

As its title suggests, Copland’s In The Beginning deploys the text of the seven days of creation from the first book of Genesis. Led by a solo mezzo-soprano – a step-out from the choir by a fearless Martha McLorinan – the patient, steady setting delineates God’s work of each day, divided by a tricky key change between each. For less skilled ensembles, those divisions often result in a drop in pitch but that was never a problem here.

But for all the attention to Copland’s myriad dynamic markings, the performance of the piece, ironically, lacked life. From the soloist’s too utterly perfect diction down through the choir, the evolving sense behind the words remained obscured. This isn’t pure music, it’s vivid storytelling with ever-growing tension that needs to build inexorably to the mysterious, then triumphant creation of man. The markings on the final page rise from f (loud) to an astonishing ffff ie. four times as loud. The sound of the last, vast E flat major chord certainly rang out but it simply felt like a final chord when it should be the thrillingly inevitable release of dramatic tension. It seems deeply ungrateful having been presented with singing of this calibre but, whisper it low, it turns out that good taste isn’t everything.


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