REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Tenebrae, Ryedale Festival, 29/7/2021

Tenebrae: “Remains one of the best in the business”. Picture: Sim Canetty Clarke

Ryedale Festival: Tenebrae, Renaissance Glories, Ampleforth Abbey, July 29

TENEBRAE is observing its 20th anniversary this year and no doubt relishing the opportunity for a real celebration at last.

Nigel Short’s crack choir, here numbering 11 singers, chose music of mourning from the heart of the Renaissance: from Spain, Tomás Luis de Victoria and his slightly younger contemporary Alonso Lobo, with Gregorio Allegri’s incomparable Miserere representing Italy of a generation later.

Lobo’s six-voice Versa Est In Luctum (‘My harp is tuned to mourning’) is one of the most moving motets of the period. Its prayerful progression from full-on minor, almost wallowing in self-pity, to something approaching the major key and positivity, speaks of hope finding a way out of adversity. Certainly Tenebrae managed this transition with smooth conviction.

Allegri’s Miserere is a setting of Psalm 51. For it to build up the necessary tension before its sacrificial dénouement, it demands to be sung in its entirety. Sadly, on this occasion, it was limited to a mere three of the famous high Cs, plus the epilogue.

No doubt it was thought that the complete work would make the concert too long, given that there was to be no interval. It seemed to finish just as it was getting going, although it was clean enough. But an alternative work would have been preferable. 

By far the evening’s most substantial piece was Victoria’s Requiem Mass. It was a surprise, although perfectly acceptable, that all the plainsong incipits were sung by female voices. Nigel Short paid immense attention to detail throughout.

In the Introit, where the sopranos spend a good deal of time on the dominant (the fifth note of the scale), he developed a notable urgency in the inner voices. He was also at pains to differentiate the varied entries in the Kyrie. In the Offertory, perhaps the most purely Spanish-sounding of all the sections, he dissolved tension with several melting cadences.

During the Sanctus and Benedictus the voices sounded as if three times their actual number, although tuning remained impeccable and ensemble shapely. In the final section, Lux Aeterna, Short picked out the phrase ‘quia pius es’ (translated here as ‘because thou art merciful’) for special treatment, while building up the overall intensity.

It would have been a masterful performance, but for one shortcoming: the diction. Words were rarely anywhere close to clear enough. The same problem afflicted the extraordinary encore, a setting of Flanders & Swann’s Slow Train – which really had no place here.

Some of its stations were apparently localised, but they disappeared without trace, under-projected. A lively Byrd motet might have been more appropriate. Even so, Tenebrae remains one of the best in the business.

Review by Martin Dreyer