Music Web – August 2003
This is a CD of exceptional stature. It seems to me that everything about it – performances, documentation, sound quality and, above all, the music itself – is of the highest quality. In particular, I rejoice to find that so much of the contents of this programme is either church music or music which has a religious impulse behind it. Those who, like me, often despair at the quality of so much contemporary church music can take heart! With one exception the pieces here were new to me. They are deserving of the widest possible audience so all credit to Signum for recording them.
Tenebrae is a mixed chamber choir of professional singers founded by Nigel Short, the singer, conductor and composer who, inter alia was a member of The King’s Singers between 1994 and 2001. For this recording the choir comprised 8 sopranos, 8 altos (four male, four female) and 7 each of tenors and basses. This is clearly an expert ensemble. Throughout this disc, despite the rigorous demands of the various composers, balance, intonation, tuning and dynamic control are absolutely flawless. They sing a truly demanding programme and the music is challenging in every sense but is of such quality that it must all be extremely rewarding to sing. The choir’s motto is "Passion and Precision" and they certainly live up to it here.
The opening work by Jonathan Dove gives an excellent foretaste of what is to come. The main melodic idea I can best describe as broad and aspiring. It is atmospherically underpinned by an ostinato-like organ accompaniment. Its appearances are punctuated by a "pleading" two-note motif, to the words "Seek him", which is most effective. For the most part the music moves (or floats) quite slowly though later on it begins to dance and at 4’40" the jagged rhythms for "seek him" reminded me momentarily of John Adams. The work ends serenely.
I’ve heard Giles Swayne’s Magnificat several times, both live and on CD and I’m bound to say that my reactions to it have hitherto been somewhat cool. However, heard here in the context of other contemporary pieces it makes a much stronger effect. I think it helps also that it provides a (necessary) lively contrast in a programme which includes several more contemplative pieces. Tenebrae’s singing is, as ever, exemplary. The rhythms, so important in this work, are crisply delivered and the several strands of choral texture are all crystal clear.
The work by Tavener from which the album takes its title is brand new. Indeed, the piece, commissioned by Tenebrae, was due to receive its première at the Salisbury Festival on 6 June 2003. In this piece Tavener celebrates motherhood and especially the motherhood of the Virgin Mary. Much of the setting comprises gravely beautiful and rich choral harmonies. When the organ makes its first appearance, at 8’00", I was reminded of the great coup de théâtre at the end of Tavener’s God is with us, except that here the organ accompanies the singers. In this latest piece the dramatic stroke is the introduction of a Hindu temple gong (track 4, 10’29"). I’m an admirer of Tavener’s music though I find his most effective compositions to be those on a fairly modest scale, especially as regards length. I strongly suspect Mother and Child may well turn out to be another highly successful piece. It certainly impressed me.
The short work by Alexander L’Estrange that follows the Tavener is a gentle and effective piece, much of which is underpinned by undulating figures for the lower voices (the rocking of the cradle). Superficially it sounds a simple piece but it’s not. The surface simplicity conceals musical complexity and a short piece of some worth and substance. L’Estrange, by the way, is a member of Tenebrae though he’s not listed as a participant in this recording.
Is there anything Jeremy Filsell can’t do? Not content with being a virtuoso organist, especially renowned for his recorded intégrale of the music of Marcel Dupré, he is also a noted pianist. In his "spare time" he sings alto in Tenebrae and he composes. His setting of the Jubilate (Psalm 100), included here, is exuberant and vital and includes a most effective organ part (played by the composer, of course). It’s not entirely clear from the notes but I wonder if this setting is part of the morning and evening canticles that Filsell wrote for the Choir of St, George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, in 2001? The joyous concluding ‘Glory be’ (track 6, 1’22") is very representative of the piece as a whole.
The male voices of Tenebrae perform Richard Rodney Bennett’s piece. It is taken from a larger work, Sermons and Devotions that Bennett wrote for the 25th anniversary of The King’s Singers (in 1993, I believe). It is a fine and evocative setting of words by the seventeenth century English priest and poet, John Donne. I can do no better than quote Jeremy Filsell’s description in the notes: "The bittersweet harmony within slow-moving lines compellingly conjures the poetic intimacy of the text." In the middle of the work there is a wide-ranging solo for tenor, which is excellently sung by Andrew Busher.
The longest and most discursive piece on the programme is My song is love unknown by Francis Pott. It’s a setting of Samuel Crossman’s famous hymn text but John Ireland’s celebrated (and excellent) tune seems light years away. Pott’s work is closer to being a miniature cantata and, indeed, he suggests in his note that he might well orchestrate the organ accompaniment one day. As it is, Jeremy Filsell plays the huge part as if he were a one-man orchestra.
It’s a very strong and atmospheric work, at the heart of which lies the essential conflicting paradox of Palm Sunday. Pott pits the cries of "Hosanna" from the crowds welcoming Christ into Jerusalem that day against the mob’s subsequent cries of "Crucify". Inevitably, it is the latter cry, which wins the day after a bitingly dramatic musical conflict, akin to the collision of harmonic tectonic plates. The whole is built to a searing, titanic climax (from 8’02") before we hear a superbly wrought polyphonic choral passage of great complexity and rich texture. Eventually the piece subsides but even just before the end ominous rumblings of "crucify" are heard again before the final, exhausted "Amen".
It seems to me that Pott has produced a magnificent and disturbing work. As befits its subject it is certainly not an easy listen but it is most thought-provoking and rewarding. It sounds as if it presents formidable technical challenges to the performers but all such difficulties are triumphantly surmounted here. Indeed, it seems almost inconceivable that the work could receive a finer performance than this present one.
I have, however, deliberately left to last the piece which has made the greatest impact on me. This is the other offering from Francis Pott, The souls of the righteous, for which he has taken as his text those wonderful, moving words from the Book of Wisdom, "The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God." Pott has perfectly realised the serenity, dignity and consolation conveyed in these lines and has constructed a truly beautiful piece of choral music. The work opens in a mood of quiet serenity. Eventually, from the radiant choral harmonies a marvellous, soaring tenor solo emerges (track 2, 3’58"). The soloist repeats the entire text while the choir weaves a gorgeous, quiet tapestry of sound round the lovely line given to the tenor. (William Kendall is most affecting as the soloist). Pott sustains the mood of subdued ecstasy right though to the seraphic concluding "Amen". This, it seems to me, is an exceptional piece and it is exceptionally well performed by Tenebrae. I would imagine that the gentleman who commissioned it in memory of his late wife must have been intensely moved on hearing the result of his commission for the first time. I certainly found listening to it a most affecting experience.
This is an outstanding release in every way. Not only are the music and the performances superb, but also the engineers have captured the results in magnificent, clear and natural sound. In addition there are excellent notes by Jeremy Filsell (and, in the case of My song is love unknown, by Francis Pott.) These notes and all the texts are provided in English, French and German.
Even now, only half way through 2003 I feel certain that this most distinguished CD will be one of my Recordings of the Year – indeed, quite possibly the recording of the year. I hope I have conveyed adequately my enthusiasm for it. If you care about choral music, and especially about church music then I urge you to add this disc to your collection without delay.
Recommended with the greatest possible enthusiasm.
May I add a brief postscript to my review of Tenebrae’s exceptional CD?
A few nights ago I was fortunate enough to attend a concert given by Nigel Short and Tenebrae in Tewkesbury Abbey, a large and glorious medieval church in Gloucestershire. The concert was part of the Cheltenham International Festival. The programme included two of the items on the CD, the Swayne Magnificat and John Tavener’s Mother and Child. The remaining items ranged from plainchant to 20th century English music.
All I can say is that the live performance was fully up to the tremendous standards of the CD. The perfect tuning, balance and tonal control evident on the CD were all in abundant evidence during the concert (the entire first half of which was also sung from memory!).
I know that often one wonders how "artificial" a CD may be and how many edits and retakes have been combined to produce the finished product. In this particular case, based on what I saw and heard at Tewkesbury I am confident that this CD is a wholly accurate representation of the choir live. "What you hear is what you get".
Hearing this excellent choir live enables me to recommend their disc even more strongly.