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Review of Cambridge Music Festival: Tenebrae

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Renowned vocal ensemble ‘Tenebrae’ performed at St John’s College chapel on Wednesday evening as part of this year’s Cambridge Music Festival.

In the light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine their intended programme had been modified to include sacred and devotional music from both Western and Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition.

‘Tenebrae’, the Latin word for ‘darkness’, is a name also given to part of the Divine Office for each of the last three days of Holy Week (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday) preceding Easter Sunday, the Church’s greatest feast.

In addition to the more familiar names included in the programme (Bach, Rachmaninov, Schoenberg), we were able to listen, probably for the first time for many of us, to music by such figures in the Russian Orthodox tradition as Chesnokov, Kalinnikov, Golovanov, Sheremetiev. Their music is powerful, haunting and deeply reverential, a lot of it with a strong bass line and performed to perfection by the Tenebrae ensemble which includes some very notable bass voices.

Tenebrae. Picture: Sim Canetty-Clarke (56343307)
Tenebrae. Picture: Sim Canetty-Clarke (56343307)

Like the naïve artistry of icons, this music is not essentially for aesthetic critical response (beautiful though it is), but intended primarily as an aid to religious devotion. Even those who are not religious can enter into the mysteries of these often very ancient canticles.

Tenebrae gave a wonderful account of Poulenc’s ‘Four Lenten Motets’ where the beautiful and soaring soprano and alto voices combined with those of bass and tenor to register the various nuances of the texts of psalms and Holy Week responses.

‘Tenebrae factae sunt’, the 3rd Motet, recalls the darkness which fell at the moment of Christ’s death, appropriate for the audience, too, as darkness fell slowly outside the chapel, darkening its interior and suggesting perhaps also the current political darkness which had prompted the programme.

Tenebrae (56343310)
Tenebrae (56343310)

Tenebrae performed Schoenberg’s ‘Peace on Earth’ (‘Friede auf Erden’ 1907), expressing the composer’s hope for harmony among peoples and anticipating the First World War, much as Vaughan Williams’s ‘Dona Nobis Pacem’ (1936) had prefigured the Second. The poetic text of Schoenberg’s moving work can never have been more relevant: ‘. . . there is an eternal belief/ That the weak shall not fall prey/ To every insolent murderous gesture . . . Something resembling justice/ Works against murder and horror.’

A difficult work to sing with all its current implications and the atonalities which reflect them, but as with each of the programme’s offerings there was no vocal challenge that Tenebrae could not magnificently rise to. Their penultimate performance, part of Bach’s cantata ‘Singet dem Herrn’, his hopes at New Year for a better future, was an absolute tour de force in their communication of its beauty and complexity.

With ‘Prayer for Ukraine’, the spiritual national anthem of the currently beleaguered nation, Tenebrae ensured that Lysenko’s gentle music and Oleksandr Konysky’s text, with its emphases on ‘kindness’, ‘grace’, ‘light’ and ‘freedom’, came movingly together in this parting, exemplary delivery of their truly outstanding vocal talent.


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