While classical music does not represent a significant part of the annual Sydney Festival’s offerings, the British chamber choir Tenebrae was invited to participate in two concerts. The first of these – appropriately titled Masterworks of the Renaissance – took place on Tuesday night.

Tenebrae and Nigel Short
© Yaya Stempler

The joy of hearing this eminent vocal ensemble was, however, marred by some minor oversights, such as the lack of informative concert notes – the small, A5 size single page flyer written in tiny font and distributed at the door hardly counts. Such notes would surely have helped the audience to understand the meaning of a number of important but perhaps lesser known terms used in the programme, such as Responsories, Lamentations, Requiem and, of course, Tenebrae itself. The Latin titles heading the movements could have been translated, a historical background explained and the composers introduced.

As it was, the guiding principle behind the impeccably designed programme may for some have not been immediately obvious. Yet, it was as if Tenebrae (“darkness” in Latin), a religious ceremony of vocal works, traditionally sung in the liturgical context of the three days preceding Easter, was performed by the eponymous choir in the first half of the concert.

Most of the programme consisted of the works of 16th-century Spanish composers, beginning with Alonso Lobo’s Versa est in luctum, originally written as a funeral motet in memory of Philip II, King of Spain. Its solemnly descending main motif appeared one by one in all of the six voices, as they imitated one another in rich polyphony. As a result, six different words were often sung together, making Lobo’s Latin text hard to follow, until the magical point when all singing parts converged on the word flentium (weeping), a most expressive moment.

A selection from Tomás Luis de Victoria’s Tenebrae Responsories and Lamentations was advertised as the next item; the six short Responsories (in this context: a cappella motets) were, however, not followed by any of the composer’s Lamentations – a detail perhaps missed by the organisers? All of these Responsories sounded to our modern ears as if being in a minor key, although Victoria would have considered them as being in the Dorian mode with occasional fictitious (musica ficta) alteration to the pitch. Notwithstanding the same key, the dramatic content of these movements was individually explored by the 14-piece choir. Their intonation was impeccable, diction of the Latin text clearly articulated and the vocal solos excelled without exception. Their Artistic Director, Nigel Short, more gently guided than actually conducted the phrasing of his musicians. His movements were small but expressive, not instructions but reminders, upholding seamless communication about the smallest of musical gestures.

At first sight, one might think that the famous Miserere by Gregorio Allegri was a gentle bow towards popularity in a concert, where the rest of the pieces were less familiar to the average concertgoer. However, while it is true that Allegri was the only non-Spanish composer on the programme and his Miserere setting of Psalm 51 was composed some four decades after the other works, it still fitted in neatly, as it was written for the Sistine Chapel’s Tenebrae services during the Holy Week.

The supreme level of singing was equally enjoyable in Victoria’s setting of the Requiem Mass. The individually strong voices created a powerful choral sonority. At times, however, for example at the beginning of the Sanctus, the ensemble sang quietly, with touching intimacy. Using that introverted sound more often would probably have added more depth to other movements as well.

Four larger candleholders decorated the stage, two on each side of the singers. A gradual extinguishing of the candles, leaving the stage in near darkness, could have created a further subtle reference to the Catholic Tenebrae service.