Friday 12 February 2016

Le choeur chant du coeur - Tenebrae in French choral music

Tenebrae & Nigel Short
Tenebrae & Nigel Short
Perotin, Brumel, de Severac, Poulenc, Durufle; Tenebrae, Nigel Short; Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 11 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Shattering performance of Poulenc's Figure Humaine crowns fine programme of French choral music

French choral music was the theme of Tenebrae and Nigel Short's concert at the Cadogan Hall on 11 February 2016 as part of the Choral at Cadogan series. Le choeur chant du coeur focussed on unaccompanied French sacred music from the 12th to the 20th century, highlighting the disjoint that occurred because of the Revolution with the closing of choir schools. So the programme started with in the 13th century with Perotin's gradual Viderunt Omnes, moved to the 15th century with Antoine Brumel's Lamentations of Jeremiah, then stopped briefly in the 19th century for Deodat de Severac's Tantum Ergo before exploring the 20th century with Poulenc's Quatre motets pour un temps de penitence and Salve Regina, Durufle's Quatre motets sur des themes gregoriens and Messiaen's O sacrum convivium, before finishing with Poulenc's choral masterpiece, Figure humaine.

Perotin's gradual Viderunt omnes remains striking even after 800 years, testament to the liveliness of the musical tradition at Notre Dame in Paris around 1200. Sung by three tenors, Matthew Long, Ruairi Bowen and Ben Alden, with the drone bass part provided some of the other men from the choir, and the sopranos singing the chant sections from the gallery above the stage, the results were as astonishing as ever. The three solo tenors achieve a lovely balance between the voices in the complex vocal melismas thus giving us a fine even texture whilst keeping the vitality. Having the performance conducted, rather than being sung in conductorless ensemble, and with the piece not in the singers regular repertoire meant that there was a certain carefulness about the performance. Whilst it may have lacked an ideal sense of freedom, there was still a lovely fluidity about it and a highly engaging sense of the three solos acting as a group.

Antoine Brumel (c1460-1513) is best known as the composer of the 12-part Earthquake Mass. His Lamentations of Jeremiah, setting two passages from the full text, are less spectacular but no less beautifully written and poised. Brumel's writing moves smoothly between homophony and polyphony, and as sung by the altos, tenors and basses of Tenebrae the result were quite austere but with an elegance and a lovely sense of balance to the lines.

Francis Poulenc's Quatre motets pour un temps de penitence date from 1938, quite early on in his later turning towards sacred music following his return to the Roman Catholic faith in 1936. They are classic Poulenc, with the frequent changes of metre, angular melodies and harmonies and a sense of vivid engagement with the text. This was the first time we heard the full choir singing ensemble, with 19 singers (a mixture of men and women on the alto part). Timor et tremor started with strong statement but then relaxed with some quite gentle moments which seemed almost romantic. Vinea mea electa was also rather gentle with a lovely hushed sense which Short used to contrast with the brash, fierce music for the word 'Barabam' (Barabbas). A poised performance, the choir certainly gave the feeling that this music was in their blood. Tenebrae factae sunt started with a lovely dark tone. Overall it was sober and bleak, but lit by some  lovely limpid moments. Tenebrae factae sunt was technically strong in the highly tricky rhythmic passages. Short ensured that the piece flowed well despite the frequent changes of tempo and metre. Throughout the motets the singers brought particular intensity to the hushed moments, creating quite a relaxed feel.

The final item in the first half was Olivier Messiaen's O Sacrum Convivium. An early work dating from 1937, it was his only published piece of liturgical choral music. It sets the communion text in sober homophony with harmonies of dark richness and a fluid sense of metre. The choir brought a hushed quality to the opaque harmonies, though Short's tempo was quite slow and there was a slight sense of the ensemble revelling a little to much in the luxuriant beauty of the sung textures.

After the interview we heard Poulenc's 1941 setting of the Salve Regina, a poised and almost neo-classical piece, to which the performers gave a nice warmth of tone and a sense of alertness.

Maurice Durufle's Quatre motets sur theme gregoriens date from 1960 and are all formed securely on the plainchant melodies. Durufle doesn't quote the melodies, he bases the entire piece on them surrounding the chant with his luxuriant harmony. Durufle was in fact three years younger than Poulenc but his music has a timeless quality with less of the lively jagged edges of modernism which show through in Poulenc. Ubi caritas et amor had a lovely fluidity, with the balance between the voices bringing out the richness of harmony. Tota pulchra es was livelier with a fine clarity to the texture (upper voices only) and flow to the uneven metre. Tu es Petrus was sung with brilliant tone and some vibrant ecstatic moments. Finally Tantum ergo with its lovely intertwining of lines round the slow moving chant.

Deodat de Severac (1872-1921) was from an earlier generation and his Tantum ergo setting had a classic simplicity and elegance to it.

The final work in the programme was Poulenc's secular masterpiece Figure humaine. Written in 1943 in occupied Paris, it set text by Paul Eluard. The manuscript was smuggled out of Paris and the premiere given in London in 1945. The poems are a tribute to the human spirit, but especially those in the Resistance. The work is written for double six part choir, creating 12 parts which can move up to 14 in number with additional divisi. As such it is quite a challenge to be sung by just 18 singers, but having so few voices per part gave the work a sense of directness and intimacy. A great test of technical skill and stamina at the best of times, the work clearly challenged the singers but their performance was vibrantly brilliant. In the earlier Poulenc pieces in the programme there had been a sense of uncertainty of tone to the top soprano part, but here the sopranos really hit form and we had a lovely solo high E at the end.

 Bientot (Soon)opened strongly, with a sense of the choir relishing the dissonances, which contrasted with the beautiful yet alert tone in the quieter passages. La role des femmes (The role of women) was a superb, fast patter, but it was not a light piece and particularly the accompanying la-la-la had real sense of anger and edge to it. Aussi bas que le silence (As low as silence) had an austere calm it with a fine sense of control, until the intense last verse. Patience brought lovely clear tone to the rich textures creating a sense of magic, until the harsh contrast with the violent last line ('Prepare a bed for the vengeance where I'll be born').

Premiere marche la voix d'un autre (First step the voice of another) was quite perky, but with a harsh edge to the lower voices making the piece quite unnerving. Un loup (a wolf) was transparent with great beauty of texture. Un feu sans tache (Stainless fire) was sung with great firmness of tone, creating something vibrant and intense yet highly mobile. The fourth verse blossomed into music of great clarity, which then built to a vivid climax. The long final movement is one gradual climax, the repetitious lines growing towards the word 'Liberte'. Short and his singers brought a superb sense of control to this movement, growing the excitement gradually and never letting up. It opened with them singing with a light touch, but clear firmness of intent and developed into something shattering.

The audience reaction was rightly extremely enthusiastic, but with such it strong performance of Figure humaine it is difficult to think of any piece as a suitable encore, and rightly Nigel Short and Tenebrae did not try.

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