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Francois COUPERIN (1688-1733)
Trois Leçons de Ténèbres [40:53]
Carlo GESUALDO (1566-1613)
Tenebrae Responses for Maundy Thursday [37:16]
Tenebrae/Nigel Short (director)
Recorded in All Hallow’s Church, Gospel Oak, London, March & July 2019

Tenebrae singing Tenebrae is such an obvious idea that you wonder why the marketing department didn’t think of it years ago. The big attraction here is Gesualdo’s uniquely tortured response to the Holy Week text, which plays to the singers’ strengths and which showcases them brilliantly, but before you get there they offer you a slightly decadent Gallic alternative.

Couperin’s response to the Tenebrae service is about as French and as Baroque as you could imagine. Not for him the intense drama and deep inward searching of Bach: instead he assails the ears with a pair of sumptuous soprano lines that weave a web of the most bewitchingly beautiful sound around the text, drawing the heart closer to intoxication than to devotion. Grace Davidson and Julia Doyle, members of the choir, take turns singing the first and second lessons, and then join together to weave an even more luxurious sound around the third. It’s extraordinarily beautiful, something to surrender to rather than, to my ears, to draw your soul to devotion. However, the limpid, lovely soprano lines are spellbinding as they weave their endless melismas against the gentle continuo line (organ and viola de gamba only). I’m not sure I’d necessarily prefer it to Lucy Crowe and Elisabeth Watts’ performance – there two distinguished soloists bring to the music their huge experience of the opera stage – but it’s lovely to have as a complement to the late-Renaissance penitence of what follows.

Gesualdo wrote music for the nine responsories for each of the three most solemn days of Holy Week. (Tenebrae recorded the Holy Saturday Responsories in 2012.) He brings to this passiontide music all of the harmonic daring for which he is famous in his sacred motets. The crunchy, almost painful chromaticisms at the heart of his sound world are set to the service of portraying Christ’s suffering in the garden, and also the listeners’ response of sorrow and penitential contemplation. It’s very moving and, to my mind, much more spiritual than Couperin’s quasi-operatic settings.

And it’s wonderfully sung. The size of the choir, only six voices, is key to this: effectively you have six soloists working in the closest tandem imaginable, combining both soaring individuality and the tightest possible blend. They penetrate straight to the core of the music’s emotional heart with directness and great beauty, drawing the listener into the story as well as to the late-Renaissance world in which the composer was operating. Furthermore, the whole sound ebbs and flows naturally, growing in intensity as the cycle reaches its end, ruminating powerfully on Judas’ betrayal. Nigel Short’s direction keeps the whole thing moving with organic pace and life, never losing its sense of flow or spiritual urgency.

I’m a huge fan of Tenebrae’s work, but this is an unusual disc for them because it features them in repertoire that is smaller in scale and more exquisite in the result; scarcely “choral” music at all. That makes it all the more appealing to those who collect their work. None of their fans should hesitate.

Simon Thompson

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