Arts Global

08 November 2011

The New York Times


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From Britain, the Sounds of a Century

by Allan Kozinn, 8 November 2011


Tenebrae, a 17-voice British choir founded 10 years ago by Nigel Short, a former member of the King’s Singers, is best known to American listeners through its recordings: about a dozen of its own (on the Signum Classics label) and a few notable collaborations with Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra (on LSO Live).

But if the group toured here as often as the Tallis Scholars, it could probably match — perhaps even draw on — that ensemble’s considerable following in New York. The two choirs’ repertories overlap only slightly: the Tallis Scholars specialize in early music, and though Tenebrae sings some of that too, its focus is mostly on the 20th and 21st centuries. And the enthusiasm of the large crowd that packed into the Church of St. Mary the Virgin for Tenebrae’s concert on Sunday evening suggested that there is a hunger for what this finely polished group has to offer.

The program was an overview of mostly sacred British choral music of the last century, with works by Holst, Vaughan Williams and Parry at the early end; scores by John Tavener and Richard Rodney Bennett from the 1980s and ’90s holding the middle ground; and expansive settings by Paul Mealor and Joby Talbot, both born in the ’70s, representing recent approaches to choral writing.

If harmonic language were the only measure, the distance between the earliest and latest scores was not vast. Intense dissonance has rarely interested choruses (or their audiences), nor has the angularity of contemporary music for solo voice found much success in ensemble music. That is not to say that dissonance has been banished entirely; but composers — Holst and Vaughan Williams as well as Mr. Mealor and Mr. Talbot — have tended to use it judiciously to create shimmering, tantalizingly unbalanced textures that invariably resolve into sumptuous consonance that flatters the voice and seduces the ear.

The difference between the old and new works was more a matter of scope. Mr. Mealor’s four-movement cycle “Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal” (2010) uses soaring soprano lines, lushly harmonized rhythmic counterpoint and varied articulation to explore the imagery of the rose as both a secular (mostly amorous but naturalistic as well) and religious symbol. Mr. Talbot’s “León” and “Santiago” — two movements excerpted from the hourlong “Path of Miracles” (2005) — dramatizes a religious pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, in Spain, with passages in English, Galician and Latin; juxtapositions of intense serenity and celebratory robustness; and an ecstatic finale that includes a processional by the choir through the church.

All that was almost but not quite enough to make a listener forget the appeal of the first half of the program. Its highlights included Holst’s “Evening Watch” (1924), a dialogue between the weary body and the transcendent soul that was given a strikingly rich-hued reading, as was Mr. Tavener’s “Funeral Ikos” (1981), a moving, ethereal evocation of the hour of death, physical and spiritual.

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