Sounds of the Solstice: Tenebrae at Wigmore Hall

‘God made Sun and Moon to distinguish the seasons, and day, and night, and we cannot have the fruits of the earth but in their seasons.’  So preached John Donne to the congregation in St Paul’s, ‘upon Christmas Day, in the Evening, 1624’.  His sermon – characteristic of the liturgical season in anticipating the coming of light, re-birth and newness – reflects on the passing of time and the rhythms of human life, and on God’s graciousness in responding to man’s needs.  Donne’s words made a fitting opening for this recital by Tenebrae and their director Nigel Short, in which they continued their Wigmore Hall residency with a programme, Sounds of the Solstice, exploring the transformation of winter into spring and the relationship between light and darkness, the heaven and earth.

We began in sombre mood, with a sequence of works reflecting on the physical and spiritual darkness of winter.  For all Donne’s strident imagery, the cadence of his prose is measured, the phrases complicated, the language often abstruse.  His sermons don’t cry out for musical setting, but Richard Rodney Bennett bit the bullet in 1992, setting five of the Sermons and Devotions to celebrate the 25th anniversary of The King’s Singers the following year.  Bennett largely follows Donne’s declamatory intonation and, though there are really too many words, his straightforward setting – which complements the text with chromatic heightening – communicates Donne’s meaning clearly enough.  ‘The seasons of his mercies’ gave Tenebrae the opportunity to demonstrate their flawless ensemble, sweet sound and almost ‘liquid’ lyricism.  Short shaped the dynamic nuances with economy and precision, and the Britten-esque bare fifths and unisons were perfectly tuned.  Tenor Nicholas Madden safely negotiated his long, awkward solo and Short conjured colour and warmth for Donne’s assurances, “now, now, God comes to thee”, and gentleness at the consoling close, Madden’s confirmation that “all occasions invite his mercies” being supplemented by the choral validation, “and all times are his seasons”.

The opening part of Tenebrae’s programme included two settings of the Christmas responsorial prayer ‘O Magnum Mysterium’, which ponders the mystery of Christ’s birth.  In Bob Chilcott’s ‘Before the ice’, the prayer is preceded by a setting of Emily Dickinson, and though the poet’s words might have been enunciated more cleanly here, the singers captured some of the mystical reverence that the poem expresses, opening up from the initial dark heaviness with the exclamatory announcement, “Wonder upon wonder/Will arrive to me!”, and reaching high with surging energy to embody Dickinson’s image of union with the divine.  Chilcott’s ‘O magnum’ began in quiet meditation but bloomed with lovely radiance for the closing “Alleluia”s, contrasting starkly with the rather haunting strain that seems to run through the sometimes bitter harmonies of Peter Maxwell Davies’ setting – one of the six carols he composed in 1960 for young singers at Cirencester Grammar School.  In between, the male voices of Tenebrae presented Joanna Marsh’s ‘In Winter’s House’, a lovely setting of a poem by Jane Draycott which begins with stillness and intimacy, the densely textured homophony and close harmonies suggesting the very soul of winter itself, and gradually lets in the light, sparked by the almost fairy-tale imagery of the text, culminating in ‘stretched out’ winding lines of churning energy and warmth.  It was beautifully sung on this occasion.

Three anonymous settings followed, their texts having also been set by Maxwell Davies in his O Magnum Mysterium group.  ‘Haylle, comly and clene’ – the text of which is found in The Shepherd’s Play in the Townley Plays, which recounts the Visitation of the Shepherds – was rhythmically taut and fresh of spirit.  The 15th-century carol, ‘Alleluia, pro virgine Maria’, continued the nativity story, with the arrival of kings with their “triple offerings to the babe”, and its interestingly irregular phrases were well-shaped by Short.  The female voices of Tenebrae gave a subtly nuanced rendition of ‘The Fader of Heaven’.

Poulenc’s Un soir de neige concluded the first half of the programme and Tenebrae sailed through its complexities, though their French diction didn’t quite do justice to Paul Éluard’s lovely poems which are full of imaginative imagery of loss and desolation – frozen forests, hunted creatures, seas of broken mirrors.  The work was composed during Christmas in 1944 and there’s a certain dignified sobriety about Poulenc’s harmonies and colours which was well conveyed here in ‘De grandes cuillers de neige’ (Great clods of snow).  The close part-writing was beautifully blended into seamless unity and the challenging harmonic digressions were navigated with precision and poise.  Perhaps Tenebraewere, in fact, a little too poised, for there is unrest and darkness in Poulenc’s musical images, reflecting the turbulent times in which the four movements of Un soir were composed, and I didn’t really sense this anxiety in these performances – particularly in ‘La nuit le froid la solitude’ (The night the cold the solitude), which seems to me to have a sort of ‘spiritual’ urgency, the final lines bristling with the ‘burning cold’ which takes hold of the poet-speaker.

Poulenc’s settings were preceded by a ‘homage’ to the French composer, in the form of Jeffrey Mumford’s Caprice for solo harp.  Olivia Jageurs made the Satie-esque snatches of melody and colour sparkle, glistening and luminous, while rich Ravelian cascades tumbled fluidly, briefly melting into sparseness, then resuming with vigour.  In the second half of the concert, Jageurs played her own arrangement of ‘Venus, the Bringer of Peace’ from Holst’s The Planets, capturing both the delicacy and calm strength of the planet, and skilfully balancing the complexity of the harmony and sonorities with the overall mood of heavenly serenity.  Ēriks Ešenvalds’ ‘Stars’, which was sung from the rear of Wigmore Hall, had a similar spiritual tranquillity and assurance, especially when the female voices ascended at the close, as if lifted themselves by the majesty of the cosmos.  Jageurs also joined the female voices in a lucid account of three of Holst’s Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda.  ‘Hymn to the Waters’ was especially impressive for the fluidity and transparency which made the tricky counterpoint clear, and for its sense of rhythmic spontaneity.  Short judged the gradual expansion of ‘Hymn to Vena’ with discernment, creating a jubilant mood that was given extra thrust by the change of time signature at the close.

A sequence of English a cappella choral music from the 20th and 21st centuries closed the programme.  The choric invocations of Elgar’s ‘O wild west wind’ evoked the spiritual energy of Shelley’s prophetic poem, the repetitions accruing with increasing hope and certainty, the major key resolution suggesting Promethean renewal.  James MacMillan’s ‘O Radiant Dawn’ benefited from the singers’ sensitive phrasing of the liturgical text, the final ‘Amen’ being beautifully placed, each syllable sure and even; and, I loved the sense of ‘mystery’ and growing excitement that the choir conjured in Jonathan Harvey’s ‘Song of June’.  Interestingly, here, the tint of the individual voices could be differentiated within the texture, and this was an appropriate response to Harvey’s complex contrapuntalism and vocal effects.  The low murmuring shimmer of the final image, “Stars/ Expanding with the starr’d nocturnal flowers”, dissolved magically.  John Rutter’s lovely anthem for double choir, ‘Hymn to the Creator of Light’, was a rich, joyful conclusion.  Short pointed the harmonic shifts and twists shrewdly and made the numerous changes of pace, metre and style cohere, flowingly, into a persuasive whole.  The final appeal, “Through the gifts thou dost give us,/ As thy guest in heaven receive us”, was an illuminated glow of peace.

Claire Seymour

Sounds of the Solstice: Tenebrae, Olivia Jaegers (harp), Nigel Short (director)

Bennett – ‘The Seasons of his Mercies’; Bob Chilcott – ‘Before the Ice’; Joanna Marsh – ‘In Winter’s House’; Peter Maxwell Davies – ‘O Magnum Mysterium’; Jeffrey Mumford – Caprice: A Homage to Poulenc; Poulenc – Un soir de neige; Esenvalds – ‘Stars’; Holst– ‘Venus’ from The Planets (arr. Olivia Jageurs for solo harp); Holst – Hymns from the Rig Veda (I, II, III); Elgar – ‘O Wild West Wind’; Healey Willam – ‘Rise Up My Love’; James MacMillan – ‘O Radiant Dawn’; Harvey – ‘Song of June’, John Rutter – ‘Hymn to the Creator of Light’

Wigmore Hall, London; Tuesday 8th February 2022.

ABOVE: Tenebrae (c) Sim Canetty-Clarke