Lovers of vocal music will rejoice at the return of British choir Tenebrae to Melbourne Recital Centre this January. One of the world’s most revered vocal ensembles, the choir made its Melbourne Recital Centre debut as part of its first Australian tour in 2017, and its return is just as eagerly awaited. Founder and conductor Nigel Short sheds lights on its program of Spanish Renaissance masterworks.
We start our journey with Alfonso Lobo’s Versa est in luctum. Lobo is not nearly as famous as Tomás Luis de Victoria – Victoria had a far greater output, with remarkable quality across the board, which is why he is better known, but Lobo was a fantastic composer. This is one of his finest works and probably my favourite Renaissance piece. It’s exquisitely constructed, with overlapping lines that descend and then ascend, but when you listen to it, you’re not aware of the craft – you’re just drawn into Lobo’s soundworld. The text is taken from the Officium defunctorum, a requiem mass: ‘My harp is turned to grieving and my flute to the voice of those who weep’. It’s miserable stuff, but the music is not gloomy at all – it’s luminous and serene.
Then we go to Victoria’s Tenebrae responses, which take us out of the beautiful world of Lobo into the dramatic narrative of Holy Week. These are some of the most intense and poignant text settings within the Catholic liturgy. For example, in the second one, Judas mercator, the music stops very suddenly and dramatically when Judas hangs himself and there’s a vivid word painting. In the Sepulto Domino, the words are about sealing the tomb, rolling a stone in front of it. The slow and stately music depicts the scene very effectively as the choir slowly shifts harmony from minor to major – it’s beautiful.
That leads us into Victoria’s Requiem Mass, one of the iconic masterpieces of the entire Renaissance canon. It would originally have been sung alongside the liturgy, with breaks for spoken prayers and all the things that go into the funeral service. When we perform it as a concert piece it’s still quite long at 40-minutes, but the movements flow into each other and your attention never wanes. You’re either hearing sublime sounds or great drama. It’s an old-fashioned setting of the Requiem, including all the doom and gloom about going to hell in the middle, rather than a modern requiem, which omits that. From the very opening, the chords are static, growing slowly and opening out in a sublime harmonic development. There is an accumulative effect of having long phrases which expand from simple chords, as the sopranos go higher and the basses go lower, and then they come back to the middle. It’s beautifully crafted. The original bars of the Requiem aeternam come back at the end, completing the journey just as seraphically as it started, as a reflection on the cycle of life. The result is an extraordinarily powerful piece.
The concert is titled Spanish Glories of the Sixteenth Century, but it doesn’t have a particular Spanish flavour – you’d have to be a musicologist to distinguish Spanish Renaissance composers from others of the era. There are subtle differences in their techniques for expressing themselves, but they were all exponents of the same school, which used the rules of polyphony, whereby the choir is singing several lines of the same text, starting at different times or on different notes. Polyphony has a set of rules and you can’t go outside them, but the real stars of the time such as Tallis in England, Palestrina in Italy and Victoria and Lobo in Spain, managed to find incredibly expressive ways of working within these systems.
Why are the voices from the golden age of Spanish art worthy of musical exploration for Tenebrae?
NS: When music is as high quality as Victoria and Lobo it’s a gift to sing. It suits the spaces it was written for and feels as if it was written for us, so it’s easy to perform and enjoy. Victoria and Lobo were both masters of the arts of polyphony, harmony and counterpoint, and the works we’re performing on tour are their finest examples. It’s wonderful to pick gems from the repertoire and to maintain one of the great European choral traditions.
How do you go about putting together a program?
NS: The pacing of pieces across a concert is important. There shouldn’t be too many slow works in a row, so I try to break things up. It’s also important that pieces flow into each other harmonically and I tend to choose ones that aren’t too far away from each other in terms of key signature, to avoid a jolt to the listener. You want to create an atmosphere, and everything should segue comfortably, taking the listener on a journey.
What is your favourite piece to perform with Tenebrae and why?
NS: There’s a piece we sing every now and again – we sang it last year in Melbourne – called The Path of Miracles by Joby Talbot. When we sing it, I see the singers communicating their joy and love of the piece to the audience. Even as professionals doing this daily, they can’t stop themselves smiling and having fun. When that happens spontaneously, it’s the best feeling for me. I have my back to the audience so I can only see the reaction when I turn around or take applause, but I know that if the singers have enjoyed it, so have the audience.
Tenebrae’s core values are ‘passion and precision’. How do you reconcile these two qualities in music?
NS: In rehearsals we work on the nuts and bolts of a piece, putting it together to make it as precise as possible. At the same time, we talk about what we are trying to communicate. By the time we get to the performance these are both second nature. Our focus is on performing the music with as much intensity and conviction as we possibly can. Precision and passion are both important, but ultimately, if a performance isn’t as precise as one would like but it has a lot of passion, I’m happy!
Why do choirs sound different from each other?
NS: Choirs develop their sounds from the spaces they sing in on a regular basis. For example, King’s College Chapel in Cambridge has the most glorious acoustic, which is easy to sing in. You can use your head voice and the acoustic will take the sound and let it fly. You don’t need to work too hard, and the choir there has always had a beautifully delicate, ethereal timbre. In other places, such as Westminster Cathedral, the choir sings at one end of the building and has to project its sound into a much bigger, wider space, so they have developed what is thought of as a ‘continental’ sound, which is harder and more focused.
I deliberately change our rehearsal spaces, partly because of the repertoire we sing. For secular music, such as our Music of the Spheres program, the last thing we want is a large resonant hall – it’s likely we’ll be singing it in a venue that doesn’t have that lengthy reverberation. However, if we’re rehearsing Spanish Glories, we use a nice city church. When we’re on the road, we’re presented with considerable challenges from different acoustics, so it’s worth rehearsing in various places to keep us on our toes. That way, we’re ready for any type of surrounding and can adapt straight away. If we only sing in one place that has a lovely sound and suddenly find ourselves in a dry building, we might get caught out.
Why is there such a strong British choral tradition?
NS: Historically, it goes back to our cathedral choirs, which have existed for hundreds of years. Originally these were groups of boys and men who would sing the services together every day in cathedrals or churches. The tradition has been maintained in the U.K., while in other European countries it’s been interrupted or stopped altogether. Most cathedrals have choir schools, and the musicianship of the boys is developed at a very early age. By the time they are 13, when their voices are breaking, they are fantastic sight readers and experienced musicians. That’s the backbone of our choral tradition. Thankfully, now we have girls singing in cathedral choirs, and many professional choirs use sopranos who have been choral scholars in university choirs, so it’s much more equal. The tradition has also been strengthened since the development of commercial recordings from the 1960s – everyone knows how each choir sounds, so there’s a healthy competition.
When you left The King’s Singers, what were your motivations and goals to create Tenebrae?
NS: Tenebrae happened by accident. When I left The King’s Singers, I went off to Switzerland to run a ski chalet. I wanted a break from singing because as a boy chorister I’d sung every day of my life from the age of seven. I’d suffered from nerves towards the end of my singing days, so I decided to give it up to have a total break and discover something new. However, while I was in Switzerland, someone asked me to organise a Christmas concert in Geneva Cathedral. I got some friends and former colleagues together and as more people heard about it, we ended up doing a tour of Switzerland and a recording. By that time, people were talking about us and the singers wanted to keep going. That’s how I fell into choral directing and how the choir came to exist.
What is involved in the Tenebrae Associate Artists selection? What do you look for?
NS: Tenebrae is an ensemble, rather than a choir that sings with a conductor out front, so we like to have singers who really use their ears to listen and adapt on the spot. We have to alter our sound according to whatever challenges are presented to us in each venue, so we look for flexible singers. We want great voices that blend easily, but ultimately, musicianship of the highest order.
What are your hopes or fears for classical music?
NS: Music is a universal language and should be available to all, so my hope is that everybody can access the music they want to hear whenever they want to hear it, without having to pay too much money. I believe that the internet allows people to be brave enough to discover new kinds of music. I am also optimistic that people want to experience live music rather than just on CD and computers.
What is your fondest memory of conducting?
NS: I have many! Singing the Spanish Glories program in the King’s College Chapel early in 2019 was a highlight, though. The acoustic there is very special, and it’s one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. It’s an extraordinary piece of Medieval architecture and to be in it and perform there is a privilege – you only have to look around you to find inspiration.