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Review of Tenebrae: Joby Talbot ‘Path of Miracles’

In partnership with ‘Easter at King’s’, Cambridge Music Festival presented on Wednesday evening in King’s College Chapel the distinguished vocal ensemble Tenebrae in a performance of Joby Talbot’s original and much-acclaimed ‘Path of Miracles’.

The work is an imaginative re-creation in music of the challenging journey that for centuries has been made to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The work is in four parts, two outer ones of similar length, and two of equally similar proportions between, each representing staging points along the way and each inviting reflection on a significant aspect of the pilgrimage. Only the occasional ‘pings’ of the crotales, punctuated an otherwise a capella composition.

Tenebrae. Credit Sim Canetty-Clarke
Tenebrae. Credit Sim Canetty-Clarke

The work was commissioned by Tenebrae in 2005 and premiered in the same year. It has been performed by the group all over the world, and on Wednesday found one of its most perfect settings in the Chapel of King’s College Cambridge. Tenebrae was conducted by its founder and Director Nigel Short, no stranger to this setting having been himself a one-time member of The King’s Singers.

‘Path of Miracles’ is a whole experience which cannot be précised or summarised. The music is itself the experience. The work is also a choral drama in the sense that we are never allowed to forget the activity and physicality of the journey being undertaken.

In several sections, for instance, the full chorus is involved in music which imitates sequences of laboured walking, repetitive and mesmeric footfall, until the final movement where the music of bass voices is perfectly recalling and rehearsing the hardships of climbing various ascending contours along the way. A final descending glissando down the ‘slopes of the valley’ marked an approach to more gentle landscapes a view to the journey’s end

Such matching of sound and rhythm to lexical meaning was very skilfully achieved. This reviewer was reminded of Coleridge in his ‘Ancient Mariner’ where a similar rhythmic trudge of the poet’s walk across the Quantock Hills (while he was actually composing his poem) seems to have communicated itself to the hypnotic rhythm of the ballad itself: ‘Day after day, day after day / We stuck, nor breath nor motion…’

King’s Chapel, with its lingering echoes, apart from being acoustically superb for this music, not only evoked (as it always seems to) wonder at what surrounds us, but also made sense for the choral drama as a stage of devotional intervals where the Chorus could engage in the theatre of assembling and disassembling, forming smaller choric units, or processing where appropriate.

The complexity of the composition itself was matched by Tenebrae’s flawless vocal performance, an unimaginably difficult feat of engagement and sheer concentration to sustain for over an hour and a half.

The soprano’s opening sequence, the menace of droning bass voices, the intervention of altos, then full chorus, then solo voice again, collectively kept us off balance with their various tonalities, disconcerting, and sometimes startling, reminders of the suffering and martyrdom of Saint James, the guiding spirit of the piece.

Choir director of Tenebrae, Nigel Short. Picture: Sim Cannetty-Clarke
Choir director of Tenebrae, Nigel Short. Picture: Sim Cannetty-Clarke

In all, the composition moved from darkness, through effort and purpose, towards light and in hope that the grace of the apostle’s miracles might be transmitted to us all.

Tenebrae brought their performance to a quiet conclusion where a pilgrim’s invitation was now to something unearthly and boundless (Finisterre) and with St James a guide into eternity.

Then the ensemble as they sang, unobtrusively and in different directions, dispersed before our eyes, leaving us only with the fading sounds of their voices. The rest was silence.

The power of the performance brought the entire audience to its feet. What an amazing and unforgettable experience we had shared.


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