Thrilling singing from Tenebrae in Joby Talbot’s Path of Miracles

Forming a choral centrepiece at the Newbury Spring Festival, Joby Talbot’s Path of Miracles was given an inspirational outing by the internationally acclaimed ensemble Tenebrae at Douai Abbey in Woolhampton, Berkshire. While the Benedictine community of over 20 monks settled in England in 1903, the sprawling, glass and concrete complex that is the Abbey church was not completed until 1993. But its light-filled and high vaulted Gothic style brings its own centuries-old associations and, in many ways, makes a fitting choice for a work inspired by the great medieval pilgrimages to the reputed burial place of St James the Apostle.

Path of Miracles, rightly regarded as a modern a cappella masterpiecewas commissioned for Tenebrae in 2005. It comprises a musical chronicle of the ancient 500-mile journey,or ‘Camino Frances’, extending from the foot of the northern Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain.  While the textual themes within its four movements extend well beyond the merely geographical, the movement headings, Roncesvalles, Burgos, Leon and Santiago, represent the titles of the main Pilgrim staging posts. Multilingual texts are peppered with medieval quotations from the Codex Calixtinus (relating the twenty-two miracles associated with St. James) and interleaved with passages from the Roman liturgy and lines of poetry by the work’s librettist Robert Dickinson. Talbot brings to life this evocative odyssey by drawing on vocal traditions from medieval France, Renaissance Italy and, unlikely as it may seem, Taiwan. Across its 80-minute traversal he references King Herod’s beheading of St James and his subsequent boat journey from Jerusalem to Spain. Later we encounter the pilgrims’ physical hardships en route to Santiago, the relief found in Leonand the euphoria of journey’s end.

Talbot writes with an engaging directness, artfully fusing traditional and contemporary techniques. If one wants to place his music within a framework of other, arguably more familiar composers, Path of Miracles could be described asa synthesis of Jonathan Dove, Arvo Pärt and Steve Reich (there were shades of the latter’s Desert Music at one point). Through the recurring use of choral recitation, drone figures, ostinato patterns and plainchant, Talbot fashions a highly individual score, at times hypnotic in its pulsing iterations, one that feels simultaneously primordial and startlingly of its time. The intermittent use of antique cymbals adds to the work’s gestures to the past. Talbot is unafraid to create tangy dissonance (ultimately sounding entirely consonant), or shape-shifting harmonies and multilayered sonorities that work their own timeless magic.

For this performance, and following the score’s directions, Tenebrae’s musical director Nigel Short periodically placed singers in different areas of the nave, a decision that closely adheres to the group’s commitment to theatrical presentation and, not least, underlining the work’s sense of journeying. Physical distancing can result in a varied experience for the listener and present performance challenges of balance and ensemble, but in the relatively modest space of Douai Abbey there were few, if any, problems when several of the 18 singers moved apart to form a separate subgroup. The opening glissandi from men’s voices from the transept was suitably arresting and the women’s response, ‘Herr, Santiago’, at the rear of the nave, was marvellously full-blooded, resulting in a gratifying surround sound. What impressed most was the sheer range of dynamics from this chamber choir, the singers able to deliver the most intimate, saintly pleas to floor-shaking fortissimos.

Overall, this vocal tour de force came off superbly, its complex textures and variable sonorities all gloriously absorbing. The work’s repetitions never outstayed their welcome and were wonderfully consoling in ‘Leon’, while bringing a kind of catharsis to the accumulating excitement of the final section, ‘Santiago’. Here, Tenebrae were at their most compelling, those tolling D major chords underpinning the prayer to St James shaped a sublime, paradise-gained moment. And it was a moment of awestruck silence from those around me that suggested they had reached the end of their personal journey whether meditative, musical or spiritual. Thought-provoking and spine-tingling in equal measure, this artistic pilgrimage work showcased this choir for its striking virtuosity, distinctive as ever for its flawless blend and intonation flawless and demonstrated beyond doubt that Tenebrae were nothing less than miraculous.

David Truslove

Path of Miracles
Music: Joby Talbot
Words: variously from the Codex Calixtinus, the Roman liturgy and Robert Dickinson

Tenebrae – Nigel Short, music director

Douai Abbey, Upper Woolhampton, Reading, 22 May 2024

Photo © Milly March.