Tenebrae by Candlelight

Tenebrae by Candlelight
Chapelle du Roi – Alistair Dixon director
St John’s, Smith Square, 1 April 2015

Palestrina: Lamentations, Gesualdo: Tenebrae Responds, Victoria: O Domine Jesu, Mass: Ave Regina, Ave Regina Coelorum, de Monte: Super Flumina Babylonis, Tallis: Lamintations I&II,  In Jejunio et Fletu, Derelinquit Impius, Byrd: Emendemus in Melius, Guerrero: O Domine Jesu.

The regular pre-Christmas and pre-Easter concerts in St John’s, Smith Square given by the vocal group Chapelle du Roi continued with one of their best yet as they celebrated ‘Tenebrae by Candlelight’.  ‘Celebrated’ is a loose term, as this was not a liturgical reconstruction, but a reflection on the music for Holy Week generally intended for use during the Tenebrae service.  The monastic service of Tenebrae was a combination of the office of Matins, normally sung just before sunrise, and the sunrise service of Lauds.  It only happened during the three great days of holy week, the combined early morning services being moved forward to the previous late afternoon, so that the Easter Thursday Tenebrae would take place on Wednesday evening (the evening of this concert). This meant that the normal Matins – Lauds progression was reversed to light to dark.

Reflecting this pattern of reflecting the move from light to dark, Chapelle du Roi followed the liturgical custom of extinguishing candles one-by-one, leaving the ending of the evening in darkness – apart, on this occasion, from the music-stand lights of the 8 singers.

Another custom in these Chapelle du Roi Easter concerts is the representation of the equally curious Tenebrae custom in the Catholic Church of signalling the return of the clergy to the sacristy at the end of the service. This involves the master of ceremonies throwing thirty pieces of silver onto the chancel floor “with a loud clatter” after which a “knocking and clattering noise” may be made, the altar steps are beaten with a hand, everybody makes a “noise and clatter” and, finally, the lectern bible is dropped to the floor, all representing aspects of the crucifixion. This was not quite a the HIP (Historically Informed Performance) usually expected in the early music world, in that we only had the clattering of what turned out to be the programme sales proceeds onto a metal tray just in front of the choir. Usually this is explained somewhere in the programme, giving those in the audience who hadn’t read that far a bit of a surprise.  On this occasion, Chapelle du Roi’s director, Alistair Dixon, explained what would happen as part of his CD sales pitch.

And so to the music.  Each half opened with the Tenebrae lesson, the Lamentations of Jeremiah, in settings by Palestrina and Tallis. These two major musical works were complimented by motets on Lenten themes, concluding with Victoria’s votive antiphon Ave Regina Coelorum, appropriately, the traditional conclusion of the monastic day in the period up to the Wednesday of Holy Week.  The Palestrina was generally subdued, with slow-moving, largely homophonic textures.  The Tallis Lamentations were probably intended for private singing by Catholics but, despite (or perhaps because of) that more intimate setting, display an extraordinary power and intensity. The concluding Jerusalem, Jerusalem were especially moving. The three Gesualdo five-part Responds were particularly impressive, his complex and seemingly anarchic harmonisation and chromaticisms being well controlled by the singers. Although there was a little too much vibrato from the two sopranos in the first half, that didn’t seem to an issue later on, most noticeably in the Jerusalem of the first Tallis Lamentations, and in Byrd’s Emendemus in Melius. Conductor Alistair Dixon did well to control the audience’s expectation of applause, allowing the music to flow uninterrupted.

Chapelle du Roi are now in their 21st year. Between 1997 and 2005 they released recordings of the complete works of Thomas Tallis on the Signum label.

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