Tuesday 24 July 2012

Tenebrae - Proms Chamber Music Concert

Tenebrae, photo credit Eric Richmond
I caught the second Proms Chamber Music concert, 23 July, on Radio 3 broadcast live from the Cadogan Hall. In it, the chamber choir, Tenebrae, conductor Nigel Short, gave a programme which mixed Orlando Gibbons’s The Cryes of London with Steve Martland’s more contemporary take on similar material, Street Songs. In the middle, the premiere of a BBC commission from Julian Philips, Sorrowful Songs.

The Cryes of London was performed by the choir with The Rose Consort of Viols. For my taste, the recorded balance favoured the voices overmuch. The viols accompanied the voices rather than the vocal lines being recognisably part of the same texture. On a technical level the performance was excellent, and rather entrancing. But the singers used a varied mixture of rather artificial sounding accents, which palled somewhat; especially as none were close to the putative Northern Irish brogue which the Elizabethan accent is supposed to resemble. The issue with a piece like this is how close to classical music should it be, and how close to street cries; we had a somewhat awkward half-way house. Diction was good, though I would have like a more incisive use of words.

This was followed by a group of Gibbons’s madrigals sung by soprano Grace Davidson with The Rose Consort of Viols. Davidson has a lovely, bell-like, focussed voice with a fine sense of line. She didn’t however, make anything like enough of the words. Madrigals, if they are about anything, are about words; her she was neither clear enough nor did she colour them sufficiently. Again there was the issue of balance, the voice sat firmly on top of the viol texture rather than being part of it.

Julian Philips’s Sorrowful Songs is a setting for unaccompanied chorus of five poems by Sir Thomas Wyatt, the Tudor poet and diplomat. It opened with a setting for tenor solo and wordless chorus, with the solo tenor rather stretched by the music at times. Here, and in the rest of the Philips, diction was insufficient. I was unable to ascertain which Wyatt poems were used, and the announcer didn’t enlighten us either. In the two lighter poems, Philips used a more madrigalian texture but with rather angular, expressionist vocal lines. The longer final movement was the most traditional sounding part-song, but with spicy harmonies and lovely transparent textures. Tenebrae and Short gave a fine performance, bringing bright clarity to Philip’s textures.

Finally the choir was joined by the Marimba player Rob Farrer for Street Songs. These are in fact settings of children’s songs, Oranges and Lemons, Jennie Jones, Poor Roger, which as Martland pointed out in his spoken introduction, are mainly about death and destruction, imitating adult experience.

Under Short’s direction Tenebrae’s performance was a brilliant tour de force. Martland takes a selection of rhythmic motifs which he gives to different voices, thus creating a fascinatingly instrumental texture; one which is certainly not easy to sing with the precision and accuracy which Tenebrae brought to it. Sometimes Martland created pure polyrhythmic textures and at other times more of a hocket.

Few words were detectable, but this didn’t matter; here it was the textures which counted. Martland’s treatment of the rhymes, though deconstructed and very contemporary, echoed the disjointly repetitive nature of much of playground singing. His music is very approachable but not easy.

This was a rather brilliant concert with some very fine singing from Tenebrae. I wanted to know more, particularly about the Julian Philips, but the BBC website was frustratingly reticent.

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