Tenebrae: Russian Treasures, Dorchester Arts at Holy Trinity Church

TenebraeTENEBRAE is, without doubt, one of the world’s leading vocal ensembles.  As well as being winners of this year’s BBC Music Magazine’s Choral Award, even the most cursory look at their catalogue of recordings will give you some idea of their wide ranging repertoire, the many other accolades they have received and of the superlatives regularly used to describe their performances.  Congratulations to Dorchester Arts for securing such a prestigious choir – an event made possible by the support of a private donor.

Under the charismatic direction of Nigel Short, Sunday evening’s performance of sacred music from the Russian Orthodox Church lived up to expectation in every respect.   It began with a sequence of pieces by Rachmaninov, the Great Litany (from the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom) in particular making highly effective use of the church building itself, as the tenors and basses processed along the aisle, responding to a succession of basso profundo supplications.  In the “Heruvimskaya pesn” (Cherubic Hymn) that followed, this gorgeous sound was further enhanced (if that were indeed possible) by the addition of the female voices whose melodic lines floated seemingly effortlessly above a rich harmonic foundation.  There was an extraordinary lightness in the singing here, the chords forming and dissolving within long, beautifully shaped melismatic passages.   One of Rachmaninov’s chief characteristics was his penchant for writing long, long phrases.   With Tenebrae we have a choir who can, by paying close attention to dynamics, not only shape these phrases to perfection, but can do so with truly remarkable breath control.

Nikolay Golovanov is not a composer with whom I am familiar, and we were to hear several of his pieces during the course of the evening.  The first was another setting of “Heruvimskaya pesn” and once again it was the effect of those floating female voices that lingers in the memory although some of those low bass notes (bottom B’s I think) were pretty striking too!  This was followed by “Svete tihiy” (Gladsome Light) by Viktor Kalinnikov.  The words: “Now that we have come to the setting of the sun and behold the light of evening, we praise the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – God” were sung with such fine tuning and, yes, such love by the male voices that I am sure I cannot have been the only one to have been moved close to tears.

The Glinka which followed was a further Cherubic Hymn.   Full of lush harmony with more than the occasional beguiling twist, it was sung with exceptional sweetness of tone.  I particularly liked the alleluias at the end, and the precision with which the word was divided into its Russian five (rather than its more usual four) syllables: al-le-lu-i-a.   We then heard a further setting of “Svete tihiy”, the first of several pieces by yet another composer unknown to me, Pavel Chesnokov, but this time sung by female voices, exquisitely blended and creating a wonderful sense of tranquillity, while the first half of the concert was appropriately brought to a close with Golovanov’s setting of the Lord’s Prayer “Otche nash”.  If the unmistakable Russian-ness of the music was most evident in the strength and passion of the big crescendos, it was the haunting beauty of the pianissimos that had me completely captivated.

Part two opened with Chesnokov once more, and his “Tebe poyem” (We Hymn Thee).  In an evening with so many highlights, I think this has to be my own particular desert island disc.  It was the fine-tuning, the one-ness, stillness and deep sense of spirituality the music evoked that made the performance so impressive – something further enhanced not only by the lack of applause (we had very sensibly been asked not to clap each piece and indeed there had been barely a fidget between numbers) but, curiously enough, by the extraneous sounds of a boy-racer in his BMW in the street outside reminding us that we were in the real world!

A further Litany by Rachmaninov followed, again making appropriate processional use of the church building.  (By way of an aside, I learned that the word “tenebrae” is Latin for shadows or darkness, and indeed had it not been such a gloriously sunny spring evening, I wondered if the atmosphere might have been even further enhanced by shadows, darkness and, maybe, the gradual extinguishing of candles that is the distinctive feature of the Holy Week service of the same name.  But then, this was Pentecost, so perhaps an abundance of light was more fitting.)
As with so many of the other pieces, Gretchaninov’s “Nine sili nebesiya” (Now the Powers of Heaven) was filled with luxurious harmonies and expansive phrases, while Chesnokov’s “Heruvimskaya pesn”, another of his pieces for female voices alone and Alexander Sheremetiev’s “Nine sili nebesiya”, a setting for male voices this time, touched our souls.   Rachmaninov’s well-known “Bogoroditse Devo” (Ave Maria) and its less familiar companion piece “Blazhen muzh” (Blessed is the Man) followed, and again it was the phrasing and dynamics that were so impressive, while in “Slava Ottsu” (Glory to the Father) it was the sopranos once more, soaring above Golovanov’s rich, deep chords and powerful crescendos.

As the only piece sung in English, it was perhaps in Tchaikovsky’s “Crown of Roses”, more than any other, that we could marvel at the clarity of Tenebrae’s diction.  I particularly liked the shaping of “take, I pray” in verse three, and although I was personally less sure about the treatment of the “naked thorns” in the following line one could certainly hear every word.  Precision indeed.  A simple, quiet Lord’s Prayer by Nikolay Kedrov followed while the programme was brought to a triumphant conclusion with a vigorous performance of Rachamaninov’s “Vzbrannoy voyevode” (To Thee, O Victorious Leader).

The applause was sustained, rapturous and wholly deserved.  This was, no doubt, the first time many of us will have heard Tenebrae live; I, for one, eagerly look forward to their return.


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