Tenebrae is one of the UK’s national treasures and like a perfectly manicured county cricket pitch barely a blade of grass is out of place. Everything in this Wigmore Hall performance was trim, pitching and intonation flawless. Blend was finely realised too, just occasionally raising from me a wry smile when tenors were burning rubber in ungratefully high passages. The only slight disappointment was the acoustic. Excellent as Wigmore Hall is for solo recitals and chamber music, final chords here seemed sheared of any satisfying glow. A minor point, one might say, in an otherwise outstanding demonstration of Tenebrae’s virtuosity.
Virtuosity was amply showcased in the centrepiece of the programme – drawn from devotional texts celebrating the Virgin Mary – Arnold Bax’s Mater ora Filium. Inspired by Byrd’s Mass for 5 voices and first performed in an all-Bax concert at London’s Queen’s Hall in November 1922, it’s a work that proves beyond doubt the credentials of any choir. The Oriana Madrigal Society regularly performed the work at Wigmore Hall in the 1920s and 30s under its founder/director Charles Kennedy Scott to whom the work is dedicated. In a letter to Bax’s biographer, Kennedy Scott declared the motet to be ‘the finest purely choral work that has appeared since Elizabethan times’. He could also have added that it’s one of the most dauntingly complex motets of the early 20th century. Yet its twelve minutes of rhapsodic writing and refrain-like episodes are wholly satisfying, even if you feel as a singer that you’ve scaled Everest – first sopranos have three bars of a sustained top C. Little wonder this setting of anonymous medieval English and Latin words is rarely sung today. This performance was no mean achievement, Nigel Short securing a near perfect balance in a double choir work with of multi-layered textures.
Britten’s popular Hymn to the Virgin is another double choir work (though far less densely scored) and was beautifully shaped here, with exchanges between tutti forces and solo quartet nicely balanced. Earlier, there had been much to admire in Górecki’s once fashionable Totus Tuus: its hypnotically repeated chords were bathed in a velvety tone – variously intimate and resolute. Warmth of tone also imbued Grieg’s Ave maris stella, where the star of the sea was radiantly evoked by the composer’s romantic sensibility and Tenebrae’s refulgent tone. The latter was evident too in Bruckner’s Ave Maria, its expressive range lovingly realised. Stravinsky’s deliberately naive Ave Maria always feels functional to me, but this account was no less involving than the setting by Tudor composer Robert Parsons which was shaped with demonstrable affection.
There were plenty of Marian-themed delights after the interval, chief amongst which was the very singular and African-influenced Magnificat (1982) by Giles Swayne. Its sheer exuberance (and the incorporation of a Senegal work-song) brought this work a cult following for a number of years. Occasionally sung by the more ambitious and well-endowed cathedral choirs, it can be a nerve-racking experience for any deputy singer encountering the work’s angular lines and rhythmic traps for the first time. But this was an assured performance, startlingly begun after a slice of mellifluous Gregorian plainchant. The distant past was recaptured in a little-known Stabat Mater by Sulpitia Cesis, a late 16th-century Italian composer and lutenist. Originally conceived for nuns in an Augustinian convent, her austerely beautiful setting alternates plainchant with homophonic sections. It made a welcome change of text and is a work deserving of more performances.
So, too, is Owain Park’s well-crafted Ave maris stella (2014) with its ambiguous harmonic shifts and scalic interludes. By contrast, and on a startlingly simple level, was John Tavener’s contemplative ‘Mother of God, here I stand’, one of five anthems from The Veil of the Temple. Two strophic verses formed a hushed meditation, and its deeply spiritual mood was delivered with Tenebrae’s customary refinement. That quality informed both Verdi’s upper voice motet Lauda alla Vergine Maria – rendered with impeccable control, and Poulenc’s magnificent Salve Regina, its Gallic insouciance vividly expressed. Lastly, Margaret Rizza’s 2007 setting of words by Hildegard of Bingen, Ave generosa, produced an ecstatic conclusion to a carefully curated programme where its shaking hands across the centuries was brilliantly achieved.
Tenebrae, Nigel Short (director)
Górecki – Totus Tuus, Parsons – Ave Maria, Bruckner – Ave Maria, Stravinsky – Ave Maria, Britten – Hymn to the Virgin, Grieg – Ave, maris stella, Bax – Mater ora Filium, Park – Ave maris stella, Tavener – Mother of God, here I stand, Cesis – Stabat Mater, Gregorian chant – Tota pulchra est, Verdi – Lauda alla Vergine Maria, Gregorian chant – Ave Regina caelorum, Swayne – Magnificat, Gregorian chant – Salve Regina, Poulenc – Salve Regina, Rizza – Ave generosa
Wigmore Hall, London; Tuesday 3rd May 2022.