Opera + Classical Music Reviews

‘Into the Hands of Sinners’ @ St John’s Smith Square, London

28 March 2021

Tenebrae Choir curate a moving choral summation of the events of Holy Week for the opening of the St John’s Smith Square Holy Week Festival.

St John's Smith Square

St John’s Smith Square (Photo: Matthew Andrews)

For some years now, the choral ensemble Tenebrae has curated the Holy Week Festival at St John’s, Smith Square, and although sadly, last year’s festival was cancelled due to the Coronavirus pandemic, it is back this year, albeit in a limited form via streamed concerts and services with no audiences.

Sunday evening’s sequence of music and readings – highlighting the key events in St Matthew’s account of the week – opened this year’s festival, which, more than ever, places the emphasis on the devotional aspects of the week (most of the ‘concerts’, like this one, include bible readings, prayers or meditations).

Deploying their usual professional sound, Tenebrae presented a short programme of unaccompanied choral music from across the centuries, from the plainsong setting of Pange lingua (‘Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle’) to 20th-century works by Francis Poulenc and Pablo (Pau) Casals.

The opening statements of Thomas Weelkes’ Hosanna to the Son of David (marking Palm Sunday’s rejoicing) were splendidly percussive, and instantly alerted the listener to the ‘new’ acoustic of St John’s; the group sang from the centre of an otherwise unpeopled and unfurnished building, and made full use of a resonance that has been denied audience members hitherto.

Poulenc’s Vinea mea electa reminded us of Christ’s foreseeing his crucifixion during the events at Bethany. The choir’s director, Nigel Short, controlled dynamic and shaping perfectly; the complex, modern homophonic harmonies were accurately placed such that the bitterness of Barabbas’ release contrasted in volume and attack with Christ’s warm sorrow at his betrayal.

The plainsong passed as plainsong will, working well in the acoustic, and was followed by three contrasting works covering the Last Supper and Christ’s judgement and sentencing: Thomas Tallis’ O Sacrum Convivium (whose overlapping lines were attractively anchored by a more-than-usually sonorous bass line); the soupy harmonies of Casals’ O vos omnes (whose rich texture was explored with intuitive excellence); and the short, angry polyphony of Tomás Luis de Victoria’s Astiterunt reges, which was again given some solid attack.

“Deploying their usual professional sound, Tenebrae presented a short programme of unaccompanied choral music from across the centuries…”

The crucifixion itself was portrayed by God So Loved the World, an oft-used stand-alone piece from John Stainer’s oratorio The Crucifixion. The hushed precision with which the choir performed the piece prevented it from tipping over into the maudlin dirge that is often its fate.

William Byrd’s two-part motet Ne irascaris Domine is cleverly constructed to pull together the contrasting parts of Lent; its first part is about seeking forgiveness, but in Civitas sanctis tui (the part sung on Sunday), the solitude and loss inherent in the Passion story are summoned – all of which, Tenebrae delivered with surety. The quiet homophonic statements ‘Sion deserta facta est’ were chilling, and the piling on of repetition after repetition of ‘desolata est’ gave rise to an inexorable increase in intensity.

As a religious occasion the sequence worked very well, the readings, prayers and music complementing each other in a 45-minute meditation that one might perhaps hear in a cathedral. The choir’s sound was uniformly rich and blended throughout, but therein lay a small musical niggle: despite some excellent interpretative work, there was a sameness to the delivery of everything. All the Latin pieces received the standard Italianate pronunciation, and all fourteen members of the choir sang throughout. In a perfect world, some differences in texture between the starker, more mobile, Renaissance pieces and the opulence of the later works might have been pointed up, perhaps by changing the numbers singing, or through a more obvious change in vocal timbre.

The concert is available for 30 days from 28 March online here.


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More on Tenebrae
‘A Prayer for Deliverance’ – a meticulously performed concert of choral music for the season from Tenebrae
‘Into the Hands of Sinners’ @ St John’s Smith Square, London