Nigel Short’s chamber choir Tenebrae was formed in 2001 and is celebrated for both its virtuosity and its unique sweetly blended sound. In spite of changes in line-up the vocal character of the choir has remained constant and its repertoire of complex close harmony, within a dramatic framework, has won a following around the globe.
The performance began in atmospheric style with the distant male voices of the group intoning the Gregorian chant for advent, ‘O come, O come Emmanuel’, processing from the back of the hall. The female voices alternated, making their way to the stage. Adrian Peacock’s rhythmic ‘Veni, Veni Emmanuel’ contrasted with an insistent edge at ‘Gaudete’ (rejoice), transporting the audience straight to the twenty-first century. This was the first of many revealing temporal journeys between the ancient world and the modern, devised by Short. Joanna Forbes L'Estrange, like Peacock, is a member of the ensemble and her ‘Advent 'O' Carol’ compressed all seven advent antiphons into one with lilting, attractive Celtic figures. Tenebrae’s distinguished basses shone here and produced an even richer, plum puddingy sound in Joanna Marsh’s new piece, ‘In Winter’s House’. This secular carol set a poem by Jane Draycott in shifting harmonies towards an expansive and spiritual conclusion.
Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols provided the musical centre of the evening, a spare and haunting rendition, adorned by the solos of Emma Walshe. The harp accompaniment appeared wintry and fragile at times: attractive, but not warmly phrased by Olivia Jageurs. The ‘Recessional’ provided a natural bookend as the female members of the choir left the stage singing at the close of the first half of the concert. The mood brightened with James Burton’s ‘O Thoma!’and the first signs of wassailing from the eloquent tenor section in the second half. Peter Maxwell Davies’s Four Carols from ‘O magnum mysterium’ combined medieval and latin texts and their sound worlds with his own distinctive twist. The final song ‘The Fader of Heven’ emphasised the lovely blend of the group as an ensemble and within each voice part. The jewel that is Holst’s setting of ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ followed, with gentle hummed harmonies; the sopranos and basses leading this perfect rendition. Other highlights of the second half included Sally Beamish’s ‘In the stillness’ and Bob Chilcott’s ‘The Shepherd's Carol’. The choir performed with subtle and complete musical mastery. Traditional favourites ‘Silent Night’ and ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ – complete with animal noise – brought the house down and the audience was rewarded by the tenderest of encores, ‘The African Crib Carol’ by Richard Rodney Bennett, the soft and true voices of the women led by Walshe, with harp accompaniment.