Sunday 20 April 2014

Ruins and reflections: Londinium celebrates Tenebrae

Andrew Griffiths - Picture credit: Benjamin Ealovega
Andrew Griffiths
Picture credit: Benjamin Ealovega
Last night (Wednesday 16 April) Londinium celebrated Easter week with a concert inspired by the rite of Tenebrae . Conducted by their musical director Andrew Griffiths Londinium ably tackled a programme about loss, and found poignancy and beauty in the atmospheric setting of St Sepulchre without Newgate .

Traditionally candles in the church would be extinguished through the service on the Wednesday before Easter, and the church remain in darkness until the Easter vigil. Texts from the Book of Lamentations in the Old Testament attributed to the prophet Jeremiah, mourning the destruction of Jerusalem in 568 BC, would be recited or sung in meditation on the separation of Jesus (and the congregation) from God before the resurrection.

Each of the pieces performed reflected in some way the composer’s sense of loss, whether this was Catholic or secular, and a recognition of the power of the texts to touch people throughout history.

My first thought of the choir was that the balance had improved from their last concert – there were some lovely alto and bass choral moments which I had previously been missing. This is an amateur choir with a sense of community - the solos were shared around and everyone had a chance to participate within the smaller groups.

The programme contained a selection of music from the 16th century to the present day. Included were a pair of songs from Philippe de Monte (1521-1603) and William Byrd (1540-1623) – a secret Catholic in protestant England. The first, Super flumina Babylonis, was written for Byrd, the second, Quomodo cantabimus, was his (not wanting to be outdone) response. Both were sung very smoothly at a steady dynamic.

Cecilia McDowall - Picture Credit: Christie Dickason
Cecilia McDowall
Credit: Christie Dickason
Three modern composers included in the concert were Gabriel Jackson (1962-), Nico Muhly (1981-), and Celia McDowall (1951-) - who was present in the audience.

Jackson’s Lamentations of Jeremiah was commissioned by the BBC in 2012 and has been described by him as a personal response to the words. It was typical Jackson, with Moorish ornamentations and complex harmony. Recodare Domine by Muhly was written last year for the Tallis Schollars, but this was its UK premiere. Delicately composed it reminded me at times of Thomas Tomkins’s setting of When David heard. The outstanding The Lord is good for choir and two sopranos by McDowell was shortlisted for British Composer Award (Liturgical category) in 2012.

Separated by Byrd and McDowall were Rudolf Mauersberger (1889-1971) and Darius Milhaud (1892-1974). Mauersberger was organist and choirmaster at Dresden from 1931 to 1971 and was instrumental in restoring the choir after the Second World War. Wie liegt die Stadt so wüst (How desolate lies the city) was written in 1945 after the destruction of Dresden in February that year. The programme notes point out that it was first performed amongst the ruins of Dresden Kreuzkirche where eleven of the trebles had lost their lives.

Milhaud was also affected by WW2. Like many Jews he fled Europe and in 1940 emigrated to the United States. Les Deux Cités was written in1937 to words based on Revelations and the Song of Solomon by the Catholic Paul Claudel (1868-1955). In this text Babylon is destroyed and the people are looking forward to a new Jerusalem.

Finally Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983) an Argentinian composer wrote Lamentations of Jeremiah in 1946 while he was visiting the United States. In this work the choir enthusiastically used more of a dynamic range, especially in the second movement where wrathful fortes contrasted with the sweet ending.

The choir’s best performance was easily the Mauersberger, followed by the lovely piece by McDowall. The two soprano soloists were nicely balanced and soared above the choir.

Londinium’s next concert will be on the 6th June, followed by a charity event in support of the Art Fund on the 2nd July.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover
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