Thursday 28 March 2013

Tenebrae - Chapelle du Roi at St John's Smith Square

Fifteen candles on tenebrae "hearse". The candles are extinguished one by one during the course of the service.
Alistair Dixon and Chapelle du Roi's Tenebrae concert has become something of a welcome fixture in the calendar at St Johns Smith Square. Wednesday's concert (27 March) saw the group performing Lamentations by Palestrina, Victoria and Lobo, plus Responds by Victoria, a trio of motets by Byrd and Tallis, plus the first performance for 300 years of a Credo setting by Lobo. Dixon had structured the work like a Tenebrae service, complete with candles that were gradually extinguished and the hall lights dimmed so that the final Victoria Ave Regina Coelorum was sung in half-darkness. Romantically evocative, but also liturgically correct, which helps explain why the Tenebrae service was so popular.

The service developed from the conflation of the Matins and Lauds services each day for Holy Week, with the combined service moved to the night before so that the laity could attend. The result started in daylight and ended in darkness and became associated with the gradual putting out of candles during the service. The readings at the Tenebrae services for Holy Week were all from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, each reading followed by a Respond. Dixon had chosen to present three sets of Lamentations (Palestrina, Victoria and Lobo) each followed by one of Victoria's Responds thus evoking the original service. The group numbered eight singers (counter-tenors on the alto line), flanked by the candles.

They opened with the Lamentations by Giovanni Pierluidi da Palestrina (1525 - 1594). Palestrina left a complete set, three readings each for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. The group performed the third reading for Holy Saturday, setting  chapter five. It is not a showy work, and Palestrina's harmony is quite slow moving. Dixon and his singers responded with a finely shaped performance which succeeded in being quite richly textured but also rather contemplative. It took a while for the group's performance to settle, but the quiet ending was entirely magical.

The group made quite a bright, sometimes up-front sound and Dixon encouraged them to be expressive in the use of voice, with quite vivid performances. Whilst a balanced ensemble of voices, each preserved their
individual character so that blend did not mean bland homogenisation. The result works brilliantly in this style of music when done well, as here. Dixon's direction brought out the ebb and flow of the music, giving us subtle light and shade as well as moments of passion.

Tomas Luis de la Victoria (1548 - 1611) left settings of the Responds for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, 18 in total survive. Dixon followed the Palestrina Lamentations with Victoria's Amicus Meus, a short, but intensely passionate piece where the singers vividly evoked Judas's betrayal of Christ with a kiss.

Francisco Guerrero (1528 - 1599) wrote his motet O Domine Jesu for Palm Sunday, and it was published in 1570. The text talks of Christ's wounds on the cross and Guerrero's setting uses chromaticism and suspension to heighten the tension, with the singers giving a suitably intense performance.

Victoria's Lamentations were for Good Friday, his setting is rather more modest in scale than Palestrina's and the group sang all three readings for Good Friday. Though recognisably the work of Victoria, the music is relatively discreet; my main impression was that it was extremely well made, though the singers brought out the haunting beauty of the repeated Jerusalem, convertered at Dominum Deum tuorum.

The Respond that followed, Victoria's Judas Mercator, was by contrast vivid in its intensity, again evoking Judas's betrayal of Christ with a kiss.

Part one ended by stepping out of the Tenebrae service to perform the Credo Romano by Alonso Lobo (1555 - 1617). Lobo has set the Nicene Creed, essentially harmonising the plainchant known as Credo IV in the modern Roman Gradual. The setting was used in Seville until well into the 18th century. The Chapelle du Roi was performing a new edition by Bruno Turner (founder of Mapa Mundi which publishes a lot of the repertoire sung by the group) and it would seem to have been the first performance for 300 years.

Lobo's setting keeps the plainchant melody in the tenor line, and surrounds it by harmonisation which ensures clarity of the text, but enriches with music of harmonic interest, in varied and flexible rhythms. It is a work which succeeds in holding the attention, and Chapelle du Roi performed with impressive clarity of line whilst ensuring the text was comprehensible.

The second part opened with Lobo's Lamentations, settings of the third chapter which was the first reading for Holy Saturday. Lobo uses different combinations of voices to articulate the different sections of the text, with quite a lot of movement in the parts so that at times the texture is almost busy. Lobo allows himself quite a lot of leeway when setting the Hebrew letters, producing some richly textured part writing. The result, in the hands of Dixon and his singers, was vibrant and expressive with the final Jerusaalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum being mesmerising.

Victoria's Unus Discipulus, with its text again exploring Jesus's betrayal by one of his disciples, displayed Victoria's typically open textured part writing, with a strongly austere feel.

As a complete contrast, next came a trio of motets by Thomas Tallis (c1505 - 1585) and William Byrd (1539 - 1623) which set Matins Responds for the first Sunday in Lent. All three motets come from the composer's joint collection Cantiones Sacrae published in 1575. In In Jejunio et fletu the group brought out very vividly Tallis's striking use of harmony and modulation to represent the weeping and wailing of priests. Here we find Tallis responding to continental composers' harmonic language with none of his familiar use of imitation. Byrd's Emendemus in Melius is altogether more conventional, though vibrantly rendered by the group with every little movement away from homophony being made to tell.  Tallis's Derelinquat Impius showed Tallis in more familiar form, with the voices flowing from one to many in gloriously harmonious movement of parts. It has to be said that these motets had a double meaning; ostensibly published for domestic usage, the texts had substantially political resonances and could be read as offering support recusant Catholics in England.

During the service the candles on the stage had been gradually put out and, this being a modern concert hall, the lights gradually dimmed. So that for the final motet, Victoria's glorious Ave Regina Coelorum, we were in half darkness. A magical ending to a vividly involving concert.

This was a programme which wore its learning lightly, creating a fascinating and varied programme whilst evoking the highly romantic Tenebrae service. Dixon and his eight singers gave us vivid performances of some glorious music.
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