Wednesday 4 May 2022

Queen of Heaven: from the hypnotic to the rapturously ecstatic, Nigel Short and Tenebrae explore music written for the Virgin Mary

Tenebrae (Photo Sim Canetty-Clarke)
Tenebrae (Photo Sim Canetty-Clarke)
Queen of Heaven - Plainchant, Parsons, Sulpitia Cestis, Verdi, Bruckner, Grieg, Stravinsky, Bax, Poulenc, Britten, Margaret Rizza, Górecki, Tavener, Giles Swayne, Owain Park; Tenebrae, Nigel Short; Wigmore Hall

Many choral favourites in a finely conceived and beautifully performed programme with Bax's ecstatic Mater Ora Filium as the central climax

Last night (3 May 2022), Nigel Short directed Tenebrae at the Wigmore Hall in a programme of sacred music exploring the enduring fascination of the Virgin Mary in Western sacred music with works by Parsons, Sulpitia Cestis, Verdi, Bruckner, Grieg, Stravinsky, Bax, Poulenc, Britten, Margaret Rizza, Górecki, Tavener, Giles Swayne, Owain Park, alongside plainchant. The programme was organised to allow the music to flow, varying style and era with Bax's Mater Ora Filium as the centre piece and Rizza's ecstatic setting of Hildegard of Bingen as the final closure.

We began with Górecki's Totus Tuus, written for the Pope's visit to Poland and based around a repetition of the name Maria that is by turns ecstatic and hypnotic. Now, I have a confession to make, I have performed Totus Tuus and whilst I do enjoy the work, the ecstatic repetition of Maria's name always induces in me a desire to burst into something inappropriate such as 'How do you sole a problem like Maria?' or the iconic song from West Side Story. Here, Short and the singers of Tenebrae displayed a wonderful control of pacing and tone colour, with a beautiful sense of suspended animation. A leap back 400 centuries followed, with Robert Parson's Ave Maria in a performance that was rather more richly luxurious than some, allowing us to enjoy the imagination in this little gem of a work.

Bruckner's Ave Maria is something of a staple for choirs. But for all its familiarity, the music remains astonishing and challenging. Tenebrae were well up to the challenges, with the first climax coming over with crisp precision, singing with a combination of accuracy and passion whilst Nigel Short never gave in to the temptation to either rush or over-indulge and the pacing was just right. Igor Stravinsky's Ave Maria was originally written with a Slavic text, and was amongst a group of Russian Orthodox inspired pieces Stravinsky wrote in the 1920s. It manages to combine a strikingly intimate rocking feel with an uncompromising element (almost truculent) in the harmony.

Britten's A Hymn to the Virgin was written when he was still at school and his skill at mixing the solo quartet with the full choir is enormously precocious. Here there was no physical separation between the two groups, but all was beautifully shaped and superbly controlled. Grieg's Ave Maria, written in the late 1890s, combined a lyrical swing with great harmonic richness.

The first half ended with Arnold Bax's Mater Ora Filium; ostensibly inspired by Byrd's Mass for Five Voices the work has far more in common with earlier Tudor polyphony as Bax uses that same fluidity of texture and willingness to allow his climaxes to flourish with rhapsodic intensity and complexity. Here the singers combined fluidity, flow and flexibility with admirable precision. I loved the way the control of individual strands of texture kept a clarity to the music even at its most detailed, and there were indeed some fabulously rapturous Alleluias. 

The first half moved us into the present day with the setting of Ave Maris Stella from 2014 by Owain Park (who was also singing in the choir).  Park used the text's seven verses to create rhythm of alternations between chant over long held notes and darker, more contorted harmony, a contrast between clarity and opacity. There were, indeed, some Bax-like moments of rapture and a sense of winding up in intensity. John Tavener's Mother of God, here I stand followed, this comes from five anthems that Tavener extracted from his mammoth The Veil of the Temple.  The work used a simple, yet touching melodic idea, yet I was also aware of how Tavener had adjusted the word stress and flow to fit the overarching melodic structure. 

Sulpitia Cesis was a name that was new to me. She was an aristocratic late 16th-century Italian woman who entered a convent and, in 1619, published a book of motets. Her Stabat Mater was a striking and effective piece with quite strong harmonies. We heard Sulpitia Cesis' verses, but originally they would have been sung alternim with chant. Some of her music includes bass parts and as her's was an order of cloistered nuns it is not clear who, or what, originally performed the lower parts, perhaps instruments or perhaps they were sung an octave higher.

The next sequence, alternated men's and women's voices. The men sang two plainchant hymns, Tota pulchra es and Ave regina coelorum, creating a strong and flexible line. Then in the middle the women sang Verdi's Lauda all Verine Maria from around 1890, setting an Italian text by Dante. There was a lovely clarity and transparency to the performance, and a naturalness to the harmony, though perhaps a touch of Italianate intensity might have been welcome.

Giles Swayne wrote his Magnificat in 1982, and the work was very much written under the influence of the impact of African music on Swayne. He used a work-song from Senegal to begin and end the piece, whilst also exploring a use of polyrhythms inspired by music from the Congo. The opening was indeed astonishing, and the singers combination of freedom and accuracy in the tricky polyrhythms was wonderful to behold, and the overall result had a feel of joyful excitement and expectation.

The plainchant Salve Regina led to Francis Poulenc's setting of the text, written in 1941. As ever Poulenc combines melodic sweetness with a certain tartness to the harmony and a fondness for naughty chords. Here we had poise, clarity and a warmly flexible line. We ended with a work by Margaret Rizza. Rizza is a remarkable figure, she had a 25-year career as a singer then taught at the Guildhall School, getting involved in composition rather late in life and very much in tandem with explorations of spirituality [collections of her worships songs, intended for practical use, are issued on Convivium Records, see my review]. Her Ave Generosa, setting a text by Hildegard of Bingen was commissioned by Harry Christophers for the Sixteen. Rizza sets Hildegard's text for a solo soprano and then for two sopranos, but each verse concludes with a choral refrain where Rizza moved the texture from purity to richness, these choral punctuations became increasingly fulsome and rapturous climaxing with the entire final verse sung by the choir.

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