Tenebrae Consort at Christ Church Cathedral, on 20 June 2019
Tenebrae Consort makes a welcome return visit to Ireland as part of this year’s Pipeworks Festival, singing in the resonant space of Christ Church Cathedral. This is no ordinary concert: the ensemble’s appearance tonight aims to reconstruct a chanted service of compline in a late medieval English cathedral—or perhaps, more accurately, to provide an imaginary context for a performance of Thomas Tallis’s extended Lamentations of Jeremiah. As a programme, it is a curious amalgam—part evocation, part present-day historical exercise. The safety announcement closes with the hope that we ‘enjoy the show’, as if emphasising the irony of our being in a cathedral, in use as a secular venue, to hear an enhanced reconstruction of a now-distant religious ritual.
The consort of six male voices starts together, standing in a circle at the back of the building, opening with the John Sheppard motet ‘In manus tuas’ [‘into your hands’]. The spare polyphony, sung with clarity and transparent expression, immediately establishes an aesthetic of stillness. Beyond the achievement of mere accuracy, this is a group that cares about the sound it makes, both as separate voices and in combination. The concentration and discipline, which in other contexts can be quite wearying, comes across as relaxed and deceptively easy.
The singers split into two groups and move up the side aisles on either side of the audience, taking it in turns to sing verses of a plainchant hymn as they progress up the length of the cathedral. This use of space and movement, imitating what singers would likely have done, also allows us to hear the arching curves of melody mingle across the space, as the building itself becomes part of the instrument. Eventually the singers gather at the crossing directly in front of the audience. The chanted prayers and psalms of the compline service (printed in the programme for those who want to follow) reflect practices of devotion that would have been part of the daily routine of a building like this. The effect is deeply meditative, though one can’t help wishing for the greater riches of contemporary French or Spanish sacred chant, rather than this diet of mean Anglicanism.
The chant also serves as a lengthy scene-setting for the Tallis Lamentations. Being post-Reformation, this work would not have been heard in public at the time it was composed, but having it sung here aims to suggest the associations that the piece probably evoked for its first listeners. Director Nigel Short turns to conduct the remaining five singers. The sound is rich and magnetic, at a naturally-expressive tempo which allows the music to gently unfurl. At times a dark sensuality emerges, as the excellent low voices become a backdrop to the desolate expression of a single high voice rising above the texture.
The distancing effects return at the end, as two singers separate and return to the back of the church to sing the chant responses of the closing piece. Calmly sending us back out into the world, it gently lifts the spell that has held us for the past hour. Lenten music in June may be unseasonal, but in these strange times tonight’s offering of sorrowful texts, elegantly sung prayer, and stillness, is for many very welcome. The audience responds to ‘the show’ with warm and lengthy applause, and is rewarded with an encore.
John Sheppard, ‘In manus tuas’
Anon. plainchant, ‘Pange lingua gloriosi’; Compline for Passiontide
Thomas Tallis, ‘If ye love me’, Lamentations I & II
John Blitheman, ‘In pace, in idipsum’
Tenebrae Consort; Nigel Short (director)
Image of Tenebrae Consort by Nick White