Virtuosic performances by Tenebrae at the Wigmore Hall

Tenebrae has clearly reached that point in its timeline when it could build a roster of virtually unknown pieces and still attract an audience, safe in the knowledge that its reputation alone would be enough to guarantee a box office return. And, how stimulating it is to see this artfully conceived programme that does not pander to those without the imagination to look beyond the well-worn choral recipes with all the enterprise of pub grub.  Here we were treated to two London premieres, a work by a little-known German composer (certainly new to me) and a seldom performed cantata that only the most gifted choirs, with the equivalent of a Michelin star, can hope to perform with any degree of assurance.  And, in case anyone wondered whether Advent had been overlooked, the chorale tune ‘Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland’ made an appearance in the third of Philip Moore’s Three Prayers of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

This Wigmore Hall concert amply illustrated the group’s virtuosity in both new and infrequently heard repertoire, given as part its 20th anniversary tour under the banner Humanity & Liberty.  Tenebrae’s choral items were interleaved with short, mostly untitled, poems of American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-86) and read by Juliet Stevenson.  If, at first glance, the featured composers seemed to have little in common, the whole was aptly linked by the theme of triumph over adversity.

Nigel Short presided over the evening with precision and restraint, an undemonstrative presence who brought cohesion to Roderick Williams’ recently commissioned setting of Pope Gregory’s Vespers hymn Lucis Creator Optime. Expanding chords, stemming from a single voice and supporting a flowing lyricism, developed at the discretion of the singers, and pleas to ‘purge away’ man’s sins grew in devotional intensity with richly accumulated harmonies.  Since the work was originally conceived to be performed as a processional, the Wigmore Hall was not the ideal venue for its London premiere.  Yet, what was missing from the venue’s setting was present in the integrity of the work itself and its concluding postlude.  Its twilight mood had been neatly anticipated in the first of Juliet Stevenson’s poetic readings which began ‘There’s a certain slant of light,/ On winter afternoons,/ That oppresses, like the weight/ Of cathedral tunes’.

Within various cathedrals one can sometimes hear Philip Moore’s Three Prayers of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  This is music of haunting intensity and mirrors the emotional arc of the German theologian whose last days, prior to his execution in 1945 by the Nazis, were spent in Flossenbürg concentration camp.  Unfolding from Martha McLorinan’s finely sung opening entreaty in ‘Morning Prayers’, semitonal petitions and comforting chords were allied to fervent expression.  In ‘Prayers in Time of Distress’ (reflecting Bonhoeffer’s increasing anguish), fortissimos were never overblown, and the recurring augmented intervals were impeccably tuned.  Calm arrived in the gently flowing fugue of ‘Evening Prayers’, the soaring phrases for soprano and baritone soloists beautifully integrated into the choral fabric.  I’ve never heard these pieces sung with such poise and luminous radiance.

Juliet Stevenson joined Tenebrae for the London premiere of Josephine Stephenson’s Into the Wreck, a work for mixed chorus and narrator.  It comprises settings of multiple texts by century-spanning women authors interleaved by spoken verses of Adrienne Rich’s 1973 poem Diving into the Wreck, in which diving is a metaphor for an entitlement to equal rights.  A wealth of techniques permeates this twenty-minute score, in which Stephenson achieves miracles of literary and musical cohesion.  Tenebrae brought its underwater world vividly to life, its ever-changing sonorities leaving a deep impression.  Stephenson is clearly a figure to watch.

German composer Rudolf Mauersberger served for over forty years as music director for Dresden’s Kreuzkirche and wrote his Lamentation-inspired Wie liegt die Stadt so würst after the firebombing of the city in 1945.  Among the thousands that died were eleven boys of Mauersberger’s choir.  In verses originally written to describe God’s destruction of Jerusalem, this setting is uncompromisingly bleak and Tenebrae fully realised its Lenten grandeur.

A more arresting grandeur ends Poulenc’s war time cantata Figure humaine with which this concert closed.  Its eight movements, setting poems by Paul Éluard, are a commentary on tyranny and carnage, and consider the essential goodness of humanity and its ultimate triumph.  Éluard’s determined optimism, during some of the darkest days in occupied France, released a choral tour de force that is unlike anything else in Poulenc’s output.  It is by far his most challenging choral work demanding pinpoint intonation and an acute ear for balancing the myriad antiphonal exchanges between different groups of voices.  Gone is the impish wit; it’s a work that removes the damning notion of Poulenc as a high-class musical entertainer, once described by a Times critic in the 1960s as a ‘lotus-eating Peter Pan’. Scored for unaccompanied double choir, it’s not short on sensuous harmonies or rhythmic impetus, both of which were dispatched with remarkable precision – none more so than the breathless intensity of the final pages: its concluding ‘Liberté’ was sung with devastating conviction, along with a sensational top E executed by one fearless soprano. Bravo to her, and too Nigel Short for assembling a crack team for a magnificent performance.

David Truslove

Tenebrae, Nigel Short (director), Juliet Stevenson (narrator)

Roderick WilliamsLucis Creator Optime; Philip MooreThree Prayers of Dietrich Bonhoeffer; Josephine StephensonInto the Wreck; Rudolf MauersbergerWie liegt die Stadt so würst; Roderick Williams – Lucis Creator Optime Postlude; Francis PoulencFigure humaine.

Wigmore Hall, London; Thursday 2nd December 2021.

ABOVE: Tenebrae (c) Sim Canetty-Clarke