Perth Festival of the Arts began in 1972 when festivals were thin on the ground, brightening up the Fair City every May like the colourful tree blossoms. With a classical music core from the beginning, an attractive feature is the juxtaposition of local young musicians with established visiting artists. Perth Youth Orchestra plays at the Festival Service, and secondary schools each give a series of well-attended lunchtime concerts in St John’s Kirk, packed out to hear this performance from the renowned Tenebrae choir under its conductor and founder Nigel Short.

Nigel Short
© Susan Porter-Thomas

The 100-year anniversary of the First World War has produced some unforgettable and thoughtful events. Remembrance is part of the collective psyche reflected in our memorials, poppies, and more recently with the minute’s silence for the Manchester victims exactly a year ago. Music plays a key part, evoking the past, helping us remember as it provides space for contemplation and healing where mere words cannot. Tenebrae’s programme “We Will Remember Them” was a thoughtful variety of British commemorative choral music, the experience of the sound in the ancient Kirk heady and unforgettable.

Written to commemorate the death of Queen Victoria, Elgar’s setting of Cardinal Newman’s poem They are at rest was performed from the back of the church, the unseen voices putting our imaginations into overdrive as the soprano lines soared in this gentle elegy. A solo plainchant followed as five men took to the central platform, setting up a mesmerising drone for Tavener’s powerful Song for Athene, the remaining singers slowly advancing forwards as the crescendo built from the solo Alleluias. Written to mark the tragic death of actress Athene Hariades, now more famous for being performed at Princess Diana’s funeral, the piece is a haunting mix of ancient and modern, Tenebrae’s voices drawing us up close with dissonant, soft, mesmeric harmonies that suddenly became explosively loud and raging.

With everyone on the platform, Ivor Gurney’s motet Since I Believe in God the Father Almighty was a demonstration in blended singing, the challenging harmonies and top lines sweetly delivered. It was impossible to pick out individual voices in the glorious wash of sound. Judith Bingham’s A Walk with Ivor Gurney was written for this choir, setting his poems for the visible chorus of women while the unseen men chant Latin inscriptions from Gloucestershire tombstones. Elisabeth Paul, the walk-out mezzo soloist gave a spellbinding free-form performance, her lower range warm and burnished, while excitingly smashing out her top Gs on “Jupiter”. With a male alto adding richness to the timbre, the men’s low wailing and distant, ghostly sopranos, there was an otherworldliness that completely captivated us in the audience. To end the first half, Howells’ Take Him, Earth, For Cherishing, written to commemorate the assassination of John F. Kennedy began in unison moving to dense harmony, bright and forceful before the voices settled into a soulful, tender end, the bass so low you could almost feel the vibrations.

The Evening Watch was sung from the choir stalls, at a distance from us, allowing the building’s lovely acoustic to resonate Holst’s softly dissonant harmonies, the final unresolved chord left hanging in the ether. The singers returned centre stage for Parry’s six Songs of Farewell, a tremendous performance as the number of parts increased from the simple four-part My soul, there is a country to eight parts in Lord, let me know mine end. The attention to phrasing, balance and dynamics was impeccable and enjoyable to watch as Nigel Short guided his forces to produce exciting jubilant sounds.

Tenebrae cast such an enchanting spell that nobody moved a muscle between pieces, holding the memory, with the audience seeming yo instinctively treat each half as a continuous musical experience. When the applause came from the Perth Festival crowd, it was joyous and heartfelt.