This concert of sacred choral music by Tomás Luis de Victoria (with an opening piece by Alonso Lobo) from the British consort Tenebrae under the direction of Nigel Short entirely lived up to its self-proclaimed billing of “Passion and Precision”. One expected from a group of this calibre, and got, beautifully blended voices, clear and precise diction, meaningful accentuation and excellent intonation; but this was no sterile performance of mere technical excellence. Their singing was moving, uplifting, and always exciting. The atmosphere was enhanced by a Tenebrae hearse behind the choir (borrowed from St Peter’s, Eastern Hill) with all 15 candles lit, referencing both the choir’s name and the Holy Week music of Tenebrae sung before interval.
We went to the pre-concert talk by Jonathan Grieves-Smith, which provided a useful background to Victoria’s life in Spain and Italy in the context of Spain’s chequered religious history.
Alonso Lobo’s 6-part motet (SSATTB) Versa est in luctum that opened the program immediately presented us with the choir’s outstanding vocal unanimity, surprising in such a small group of only 14 singers. The remainder of the first half was a selection of Victoria’s Tenebrae Responsories and Lamentations for Holy Saturday. The dynamic and emotional range of Victoria’s music, reflecting the anguish and sorrow of Jesus’ last hours, was superbly realised. From the almost unspeakable sorrow of the descending phrases at Si ist dolor to the raging of the heathen (Responsory XV1), the choir sang with assurance and faithfulness to every subtlety of the text. In Responsory XV111 the choir’s exquisite soft singing as the tomb is sealed contrasted with the tenors’ demanding appeal of the chief priests to Pilate. It was eye-opening drama.
The second half comprised Victoria’s full 1605 Requiem Mass with introit, gradual and motet, that Victoria wrote on the death of his patron the Dowager Empress Maria (sister of Phillip II, King of Spain). Victoria served as her chaplain on his return to Spain from Italy in 1585. And what a lucky Empress, to have this as one’s own requiem! This masterly work is apparently simple, yet masks a full complement of musical drama. The variety of emotions and the different voice groupings kept a full audience in the auditorium gripped. In full voice the fourteen sounded more like forty. The women (sopranos and women altos together) gave us a lesson in plainsong expressivity; the auditorium rang with the glory of thrilling Osannas; the in obscuram was a delicately hushed contrast to the jaws of hell of Domine Jesu. A serenely beautiful quia pius est in the Lux eterna contrasted withferocity from the men in Tremens factus (the judgement to come), which became a vision of even more horror as the women’s voices joined and swept us into the more dreadful Dies irae.
The final Kyrie eleison was wonderfully moving, even leaving one sorrowing for the Dowager Empress herself, but assuring us that heaven was here. It would have been the perfect ending to the night, but somewhat curiously, we were treated to an encore – Herbert Murrill’s setting of Shakespeare’s Come away, death. It changed the hushed atmosphere of the end of the Requiem but was an enjoyable and revealing taste of one of the choir’s “other” styles.
Nigel Short’s conducting nurtured the singers always: his clear but subtle unobtrusive direction gave attention to the text with extraordinary clarity. The concert gave us one of the most perfect examples of intimate ensemble singing we have heard. One was reminded of the sweetest organ, perfectly blended across its ranks and colours. The art of singing great music with a beautiful tone was on full display. Phrases were sung to a glorious length, the choristers’ discreet staggered breathing a miracle. When Tenebrae were singing softly the sound glowed like a lux perpetua. Andif you wanted colour and movement in the performance it was all there, realised fully in the music. Judging by the audience comments we heard around us afterwards, it seems that our sentiments were shared. We departed the hall deeply satisfied.
Kristina and Bruce Macrae reviewed Tenebrae’s performance of Spanish Glories of the 16th Century given at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall on January 20, 2019.
Tenebrae image supplied