Billed under the bland title “Music of the Spheres”, the second concert programme of British choir Tenebrae at the Sydney Festival had nothing to do with medieval cosmology, or even early music more broadly. What was on offer instead was a tightly conceived program of British a cappella works written after 1900, with only the encore (Pearsall’s Lay a Garland) dipping back into the 19th century. Back in 2016, Tenebrae released a disc on the Hyperion label under the same title containing much of what was heard in the second half of the concert, although with many differences in personnel (the soprano and bass sections were almost entirely different to those credited on the album). The current line-up delivered a memorable evening of exquisite choral singing, marshalled into impeccable order by the understated direction of Nigel Short.

Tenebrae sings “Music of the Spheres”
© Yaya Stempler

As befits its name (“darkness” in Latin), the choir began with only the candlelight from a few sconces illuminating Holst’s The Evening Watch. From the outset, the choir’s sound was burnished, and their textual clarity exemplary. Emotionally and sonically, the music-making blossomed during Parry’s six Songs of Farewell which occupied the rest of the first half. With additional light from a row of antique lamps upstage, the subtle part-writing was brought out delectably, from the tight four-part setting of the opening My soul, there is a country to the double-choir formations in Lord, let me know my end which finishes the cycle. Capturing the valedictory tone of the cycle but eschewing sentimentality, the choir performed Parry’s war-time music with a touching nobility.

The second half opened with Elgar’s 1907 setting of the final verse of Shelley’s ode to the West Wind, before a series of Shakespearean settings by the little-known Herbert Murrill and the celebrated Ralph Vaughan Williams. Murrill chose two lyrics from Twelfth Night, Come Away, Death and O Mistress Mine, employing a slightly more adventurous palette than had been in evidence hitherto in the concert. The still greater sonic and harmonic imagination of Vaughan Williams was evident from the opening of Full fathom five, where the onomatopoeic ‘ding’ sounds had an ethereal aura. The gorgeous chords of The cloud-capp’d towers were admirably precise, and the concluding Over hill, over dale had a crisp fleetness to it.

Like Short himself, Bob Chilcott is an alumnus of The King’s Singers, and he was represented on the programme by the 2012 Marriage of my Lady Poverty and the much earlier The Modern Man I Sing, the former inspired by St Francis and the latter by the poems of Walt Whitman. The first Whitman setting, The Runner, showed the influence of Reich and Adams in the mesmerically motoric passage-work, while Marriage used a mantra-like start of each verse to good effect.

Perhaps the highlight of an exquisite concert was the pairing of Judith Bingham’s The Drowned Lovers with Stanford’s The Blue Bird. Bingham conceived her piece as a prologue to Stanford’s impressionistic piece (written nearly 90 years before), and there were many textual and musical echoes between the two. The ululating backdrop from the choir was perfectly gradated to allow mezzo-soprano Martha McLorinan to come through as a rich lyrical presence, and finishing on a low D flat/C sharp made the G flat major opening of The Blue Bird feel doubly satisfying. Without question this was one of the most atmospheric and well-conceived choral concerts in Sydney in recent years.