by Timothy Robson

We canTenebrae1 say from the outset that no finer choral singing will be heard in Cleveland this season than that of the British choir Tenebrae, who performed at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist on Wednesday, November 7. Tenebrae’s precision, dynamic range, unanimity of sound and musicality were nothing short of astonishing. The sixteen-member mixed choir was conducted by its founder, Nigel Short.

Tenebrae added elements of theatricality into its performance. Many of the lights in the cathedral’s nave were dimmed, lending a mysterious and contemplative atmosphere. “Come, let us worship God, our King,” the first movement from Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Vespers (known also as the All Night Vigil) opened the concert and was sung in Russian from the rear of the nave. The group has the very low bass singers required for effective performance of the Russian choral repertoire. In Rachmaninoff’s setting of the “Great Litany” (from the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom), with its chanted petitions by a solo bass and the choir’s repeated “Lord have mercy,” Tenebrae created a long, slow procession down the cathedral’s center aisle, timed so that all were in place for the final blessing and “Amen” of the litany.

Russian liturgical music figured heavily in Tenebrae’s program, with further selections by Rachmaninoff (including more from the Vespers), and works by Pavel Chesnokov (a contemporary of Rachmaninoff) and Vasily Kalinnikov (from a generation earlier). Kalinnikov’s I will love thee, oh Lord, my strength was sung in English, the rest in Russian. All shared the characteristics of extreme dynamic range, from the most softly sung prayerful passages, to very powerful passages that rang through the generously live acoustic of the cathedral and created an almost visceral physical effect on the listener. Such was the precision of choral blend that even when Tenebrae sang very loudly, the sound never seemed out of focus, but was evenly blended from top to bottom.

The other composer whose works were prominently featured in Tenebrae’s program was Paul Mealor (b. 1975), who has achieved significant fame over the past year not only for his Ubi caritas, commissioned for the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, but also for his song, Wherever You Are, compiled from letters written between the wives and partners of British Army military personnel deployed on active service in the Afghanistan War, and which hit the top of the British popular music charts. Mealor’s style is primarily diatonic, with added notes creating a density and freshness of harmony, resembling the style of Americans Eric Whitacre and Morten Lauridesen. Tenebrae was a convincing exponent of Mealor’s works. The first half of the program featured the four-movement set of “madrigals” Now sleeps the crimson petal, based on “rose” texts. All four movements feature mostly chordal movement, very tricky to keep in tune, depending on absolute choral precision. It was almost not necessary to have the printed text to understand the sung text. (Indeed, the text of the second, third and fourth madrigals did not appear in the program.) Tennyson’s poem “Now sleeps the crimson petal” was the basis of the first movement. The anonymous “Lady, when I behold the roses sprouting” (set previously by John Wilbye, Roger Quilter and William Walton) featured a wordless soprano solo over the choir’s sung text, ending with the soprano singing alone, and fading away. “Upon a bank” (another anonymous English madrigal text) employs vocal glissandi, whispering, and notated “tremolos” on an “oo” vowel sound. The brief movement was scherzo-like in its energy. The closing movement was an exquisite setting of “A spotless rose,” a medieval carol memorably set by Herbert Howells. Mealor’s setting was much more complex, but highly lyrical. At the end, a phrase of the opening “Now sleeps the crimson petal” returned to bring the cycle to closure.

The first half of the program closed with Mealor’s splendid setting of the liturgical text Salvator mundi (“Savior of the world”), in which a solo mixed quartet sang a highly ornamented version of the text about Christ’s redemption of the world through his crucifixion, above the main choir’s slow-moving setting. The solo quartet were required to sing in extremes of tessitura, with florid ornamentation reminiscent of middle eastern chant. The music becomes increasingly impassioned, with ever more urgent appeals to the savior of the world. The tension relaxes, and there is a brief soprano solo passage that evokes a folk song, with one more quiet imploration: Salvator mundi.

Following intermission, there was more Russian music (Rachmaninoff, Chesnokov, and a lovely setting of the Lord’s Prayer by Nikolay Kedrov), and Arvo Pärt’s striking setting of The Beatitudes, with its densely tangled voice leading and accompaniment of single pedal tones in the organ, until the final half-verse of the Beatitudes, “for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you. Amen,” at which the full organ enters to accompany the “amen” with huge block chords and then continues with brilliant toccata-like flourishes that gradually fade away to silence.

Paul Mealor’s works also figured in the second half: settings of more liturgical texts, Locus iste a Deo factus est (“This place was made by God”) and the royal wedding setting of Ubi caritas (“Where charity and love are, God is there”), with its evocation of the Gregorian chant Ubi caritas. Locus iste seems at face value more approachable than some of Mealor’s other works, and features an interpolated English sentence, referring to the church, “O flawless hallow, O seamless love, lantern of stone, unbroken.” The last word of the text Santuario (“Sanctuary”) is set to a complex bitonal chord, which leaves the listener unsettled. Ubi caritas is an arresting alternative to Maurice Duruflé’s famous arrangement of the Gregorian chant and text. It should have wide appeal to many choirs.

Perhaps the high point of the concert for this listener was Tenebrae’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s setting of the Nunc dimittis (“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace”) from the Vespers, for high solo tenor, with the other voices weaving a choral tapestry around him. It was breathtakingly beautiful. One would be hard pressed to imagine a better performance.

In a program with a great deal of unfamiliar music, Tchaikovsky’s well-known Legend (“The Crown of Roses”) was a pleasing treat, sung in English.

After a closing selection from the Rachmaninoff Vespers, Tenebrae offered a touching encore, Mr. Short’s own arrangement of the American Civil War folk song, The Dying Soldier, with a baritone solo singing the tune, and a mostly wordless chorus carrying the harmony. Even a hardened listener found himself wiping a tear from his eye by the end.


Published on November 13, 2012

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