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NYC Tenebrae praised in Limelight Magazine

Clive Paget, Limelight Magazine (11 April, 2018)

A cappella Renaissance specialists Stile Antico are regular visitors to the US, but to date they are best known in Australia for their fine series of recordings on Harmonia Mundi. Given they were performing their latest CD (to be reviewed in May’s Limelight), it seemed a good opportunity to catch the famously ‘unconducted’ British choir in uptown Manhattan singing Tomás Luis de Victoria’s sublime yet sombre Tenebrae Responsories.

The week leading up to Easter Sunday has inspired many musical beauties, but the Tenebrae services, which traditionally take place in a darkened church where 15 candles are extinguished one by one – hence the Latin Tenebrae, or darkness – has drawn forth the best in composers from Gesualdo to James MacMillan. The late-Renaissance Spanish composer Victoria published his 18 Responsories and a handful of the associated Lamentations in 1585 as part of a larger collection of music. The pieces would have been sung six per service over three “nocturns” delivered on the evening preceding Maundy Thursday, Maundy Thursday itself and finishing on Good Friday.

Crucially, the polyphonic settings of the Responsories would have been complex jewels set in an unadorned crown of plainchant. To avoid a surfeit of back to back riches, Stile Antico opted to intersperse the lushness of Victoria’s settings with some associated sections of chant and a couple of ‘bonus’ motets. They also adhered to the longstanding performance tradition of assigning lower voices to a couple of the upper-voice settings, namely the darkly dramatic crucifixion text Tenebrae factae sunt and the balefully morose Aestimatus sum with its talk of descending into the pit of the dead.

The London-based choir’s democratic, conductor-less approach, one that requires 12 singers to move organically as one, has been a fillip for Stile Antico from the start, and watching them it’s clear that eyes and ears are to the fore. The blend is intimate, refined, but not too churchy. Neither remote, nor overly dramatised (though that may be more to do with Victoria’s modus operandi than the choir as such), they fall comfortably between the ethereal for ethereal’s sake and the God-bothering. Facial expression ranged from impressively alive to slightly mournful, again a function of what is, on the whole, pretty doleful music.

One way live scores over recorded sound is you can witness the animated quality of active listening about them. Heads swing left and right engaging, adjusting and sharing words and sound, encouraged by their arrangement in three choirs of four (rather than lumping sopranos, altos, tenors and basses together in more obvious sections). Still essentially a young choir, the sound is airy, not exactly top heavy but a little light at the bottom where they lack a true low bass. In the ideal acoustic of Corpus Christi, as in their beautifully engineered recordings, that tends not to matter, though there were one of two moments of imperfect discipline when the choir thinned to two or three voices.

Each Responsory has an A, B, C, B structure, with the central versicle (C) slimmed down from full choir to three single voices. Victoria isn’t a madrigalian like, say, crazy old Gesualdo, so a word like ‘flagellatum’ can pass by with little in the way of musical response, but he does offer things like a finely drooping line to represent a dozing disciple, while the choir were called on to quicken their pace at a suggestion of Judas hurrying about his business. The chant was clean, the three tenors exhibiting a range of warmly evocative tonal colours. Bloodthirsty phrases like “Venite, mittamus lignum in panem ejus, et eradmus eum de terra viventium (Come, let us put poison in his bread, and root him out of the land of the living) were seized on with firmness of intent, the choir employing its not unimpressive maximum weight.

Two early highlights were a bitingly incisive Seniores populi where the wicked elders and priests plot their taking of Jesus, and the aforementioned Tenebrae factae sunt, which proved just how radiant the men’s voices could sound when they put their mind to it. Solo sopranos were particularly appealing in the Rogamus, Deus chant, while the motet O Domine Jesu Christe that closed the first half was satisfyingly full and fat. The Responsory about Jesus bursting the bolts of hell drew some welcome smiles and a dramatic upswing with its rare feel of three in a bar before the choir throttled back to finesse the simplicity of the long high quiet lines of O vos omnes.

Beginning with Jesus’s betrayal in the garden and ending with the entombment, there’s a profound sense of peace and meditation to Victoria’s masterly settings. With a spirited rendition of Guerrero’s joyful motet Maria Magdalene giving a lift at the end, it was hard not to emerge from such a concert without feeling refreshed and cleansed of spirit.