Following the success of their prize-winning recording of de Victoria’s Requiem, Tenebrae under ex-King Singer Nigel Short have followed up with the “Tenebrae Responsoria” by the same composer. The “Tenebrae” (“shadows”) are a combination of two offices, Matins and Lauds, sung between the Thursday and Saturday of Holy Week. The Maundy Thursday office appeals especially to the poetic imagination by the gradual extinguishing, as the singing proceeds, of the fifteen candles representing Christ, the disciples (excluding Judas Iscariot) and the three Marys.
The text for the responds was assembled probably in the fourth century and narrates the Passion by combining phrases from the Gospels with other commentaries on the nature of Christ’s suffering. Obviously this is liturgical music of the most serious, sombre and “vertical” nature. My point of comparison for the purposes of this review was with the celebrated 1991 release of the same music made by The Sixteen under Harry Christophers on Virgin Classics.
I cannot say that I would urge anyone who already owns that Virgin issue to buy the newer recording; the differences between the older and newest versions are too slight to justify the expenditure. However, differences there are: The Sixteen, in fact, comprise eighteen singers for their recording of the “Tenebrae”, with two more sopranos and one more singer than the choir Tenebrae, who thus number thirteen. This, in combination with a closer, less reverberant recording acoustic for Tenebrae, results in a cleaner, narrower, more distinct sound with words and individual singers more prominent, as opposed to The Sixteen’s more distanced, ethereal, very slightly blurred profile. Tenebrae offer more dynamic range and variety. Some will find that the immediacy of Tenebrae’s voices compromises the essentially ethereal nature of the music, yet at certain crucial points I feel that The Sixteen bring more immediacy and drama to the text; I am thinking particularly of band 6, “Seniores populi” where Tenebrae take a minute and a half longer over the music and sing in reflective rather than dramatic style, thereby missing the thrust of words such as “cum gladii et fustibus” (“with swords and clubs”). That unnecessary leisureliness accounts for the only significant disparity in timings between the two recordings. Another point where The Sixteen have the edge is in the crucial early depictions of Judas’s betrayal in tracks two and three. They are considerably more urgent and emphatic in their establishing the enormity of his sin when intoning the curse upon him, “Melius illi erat, se natus non fuisset” (“It would have been better for him had he never been born”). At the other end of the emotional spectrum, the otherworldliness of “”O vos omnes” (track 14) is more strikingly suggested by the superior disembodied sound of Christophers’ sopranos rather than that of the gutsier Tenebrae singers.
As you see, therefore, while I applaud the impeccable intonation and musicality of the newer version, I am content to let my loyalties rest with the older Virgin disc.
Previous reviews: Simon Thompson
and Jake Barlow
(November 2013 Recording of the Month)
Feria V in Coena Domini ad Matutinum in secundo nocturno
Responsorium IV: Amicus meus
Responsorium V: Iudas merator pessimus
Responsorium VI: Unus ex discipuli meis
Feria V in Coena Domini ad Matutinum in tertio nocturno
Responsorium VII: Eram quasi agnus
Responsorium VIII: Una hora
Responsorium IX: Seniores populi
Feria VI in parasceve ad Matutinum in secundo nocturno
Responsorium IV: Tamquam ad latronem
Responsorium V: Tenebrae factae sunt
Responsorium VI: Animam meam dilectam
Feria VI in parasceve ad Matutinum in tertio nocturno
Responsorium VII: Tradiderunt me
Responsorium VIII: Iesum tradidit impius
Responsorium IX: Caligaverunt oculi mei
Sabbato Sancto ad Matutinum in secundo nocturno
Responsorium IV: Recessit pastor noster
Responsorium V: O vos omnes
Responsorium VI: Ecce quomodo moritus
Sabbato Sancto ad Matutinum in tertio nocturno
Responsorium VII: Astiterunt reges
Responsorium VIII: Aestimatus sum
Responsorium IX: Sepulto Domino