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Singing of unearthly beauty from Tenebrae at the Cathedral Basilica
Concert review

Singing of unearthly beauty from Tenebrae at the Cathedral Basilica

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Tenebrae

Photo by Sim Canetty-Clarke

Any St. Louisan who loves choral music but wasn’t at the Cathedral Basilica on Saturday night missed something very special.

The English choir Tenebrae (the word means “shadows”) gave its fifth concert in 16 years under the auspices of Cathedral Concerts of St. Louis, and proved once again that they set the standard for a cappella choirs. A 17-voice ensemble composed of some of the finest voices in Britain, their intonation is perfect, their diction impeccable; pauses to retune are vanishingly rare. There’s no talking between numbers, and the music barely stops.

Atmosphere and ambiance are an important part of their oeuvre. As always, the choir was lit primarily by multiple brass candelabra (which appeared to have ecclesiastical origins) that cast a spell of mystery with their lights and shadows.

This program was called “England’s Finest,” with music of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries by Gustav Holst, Ivor Gurney, Gerald Finzi, Judith Bingham, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Hubert Parry and Herbert Howells.

Tenebrae, founded and directed by Nigel Short, uses the space and acoustic of the Cathedral Basilica exceptionally well. They began in the rear of the nave, singing Holst’s “The Evening Watch,” a piece distinguished by well-sung tenor and contralto solos, then processed to the chancel to Gurney’s “Chant to Psalm 23.”

Finzi’s “Three Short Elegies,” settings of verses by the 17th century Scottish poet William Drummond of Hawthornden, were beautiful and mournful, particularly the third, “This life, which seems so fair.” Gurney’s 1925 setting of “Since I believe in God the Father Almighty,” by the English poet and hymnodist Robert Bridges, was a lovely and effective piece for sopranos and altos.

It led to Bingham’s 2013 “A Walk with Ivor Gurney,” composed for Tenebrae and mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly. Typical for Bingham’s work, it’s challenging but rewarding; it’s reminiscent of her 2003 “Aquileia,” commissioned for the St. Louis Chamber Chorus. The texts are a mixture of Gurney’s poems and Roman grave inscriptions from Gloucestershire. The women sang from the chancel steps; the men performed from a distance, for additional aural interest. Mezzo Martha McLorinan, the evening's soloist, is a phenomenon, with a rich, expressive voice. The first half ended with Vaughan Williams’ “Valiant-for-Truth,” with words from John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress.”

The second half opened with two of Parry’s “Songs of Farewell.” “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners” and “Lord, Let Me Know My Days” were both infused with the choir’s sumptuous sound. They were followed by the Howells Requiem, with texts from the Book of Common Prayer, the Bible and the Requiem Mass. They were gorgeous and effective, and sung with almost unearthly beauty.

So was the encore, "Holy is the True Light," by Tenebrae bass Owain Park, performed in small groups that paused for a moment and then exited down the aisles or to the back. It was an effective and memorable evening in every way.

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Sarah Bryan Miller is the classical music critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; she has also written on a variety of other topics.

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