Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Komm, Jesu, komm, BWV 229
Sir James MacMillan (b 1959)
Tenebrae Responses (2006): I. Tenebrae facta sunt
Johann Sebastian Bach
Jesu, meine Freude, BWV 227
Sir James MacMillan
Miserere (2009)
Tenebrae Responses: II Tradiderunt me
Tenebrae Responses: III Jesum tradidit impius
I saw Eternity the other night (2021)
Johann Sebastian Bach
Singet dem Herrn, BWV 225
Tenebrae/Nigel Short
rec. live, 27 May 2023, Snape Maltings, UK
Texts and English translations included
Signum Classics SIGCD773 [80]

UK readers may recall seeing a TV programme, ‘From Bach to MacMillan’ which was broadcast on BBC4 in early April 2023. It featured this self-same programme recorded at a concert in St John’s, Smith Square, London. (How vanishingly rare it is these days for the BBC to show a concert on television, apart from some carefully selected Proms.) The music of these two composers makes an intriguing combination which may seem, at first sight, unexpected. However, as Edward Bhesania observes in his useful booklet notes, Bach and MacMillan “are connected through a love of writing for choirs and a devotion to writing music for their respective liturgies, the Lutheran and the Roman Catholic.”

Three of Bach’s motets are positioned, like pillars, at salient points in the programme. For the first two of these three pieces Nigel Short reduces his vocal forces to ten singers (4/2/2/2). In his introductory comments, printed in the booklet, Short says that there are “so many levels of detail” in Bach’s choral music. Though he’s describing the music, the comment applies equally to the performance of the double-choir motet Komm, Jesu, komm which he and the members of Tenebrae deliver. Bach’s music goes through many twists and turns as the composer responds to the text by Paul Thymich; under Short’s perceptive guidance, the singers respond acutely to every facet of Bach’s music. It’s a very polished account of the piece; it’s also very clear, both in terms of the diction and the enunciation of the part-writing.

Jesu, meine Freude is equally distinguished. The singing is precise, flexible and light-footed. It’s a substantial work because Bach sets a lengthy text, but so great is the variety in his music that the listener is always being led on, revelling in one episode after another; it’s a great achievement. Short and his singers give a wonderful performance. They close the programme with Singet dem Herrn; the full choir (6/4/4/5) is involved here. Though a bigger ensemble is used, there’s no loss of clarity or lightness. The exuberant, contrapuntal music of the first section is sung with virtuosity; this is Bach at his extrovert best. I really enjoyed the account of the gentle, contemplative central section, not least because the differentiation between the two choirs is so well conveyed. The concluding exultant section is light, dancing and joyful; it’s a splendid conclusion to the programme as a whole.

I have praised the choral singing but I must also credit the two continuo players, Emily Ashton (cello) and Oliver John Ruthven(organ). They make stylish and ideally discreet contributions to all three motets.

The MacMillan selection includes one unequivocal masterpiece: his setting of the Miserere, to which I’ll come in a moment. The three Tenebrae Responses are all arresting pieces which amply demonstrate the composer’s aptitude for dramatic vocal writing and for highly imaginative word painting. In Tenebrae facta sunt the music is often suitably dark, and much of the harmonic language is astringent, as befits the text. But it’s also noticeable how much melody there is in the vocal lines. All these facets combine to make a highly original and very effective piece. Tradiderunt me is an arresting piece; once again, the word-painting is excellent. In his note on this particular piece – but addressing all three of the Responses, I think – Edward Bhesania makes a most interesting point. He suggests there may be “a distant shadow” of Poulenc’s choral music, noting that the French composer set three of the Tenebrae Responses in his Quatre motets pour un temps de penitence. That comparison had never struck me before, probably because the musical languages of the two composers, and their harmonic styles in particular, are so different. However, I think Bhesania’s point is well made. Arguably, the most original of all three of MacMillan’s Tenebrae Responses is Jesum tradidit impius. The text concerns Peter’s action in following Jesus after he has been betrayed and led away for interrogation. The musical response to the text is deeply felt but it’s the close of the piece that is especially striking. The harshly dissonant choral writing gives way to a keening soprano solo, here sung with pure tone and virtuoso accuracy by Emma Walshe. The soloist eventually sings wordlessly and her voice gradually fades a niente from our hearing. In the aforementioned television performance this was achieved by the soloist (Ms Walshe, I assume) walking slowly and with dignity off stage while singing. It sounds as if exactly the same thing was done in this present performance; it’s very moving.

You might expect that the text of Psalm 51, Miserere might again have drawn dramatic music from MacMillan given the penitential nature of the text. It’s true that there are some such episodes in the work but the principal tone of this profound piece is one of humble penitence. The music is always intense but that intensity doesn’t preclude melodic beauty. It’s also noteworthy that on two occasions, MacMillan pays what is surely an overt homage to Allegri by setting lines of text to music which has the nature of plainchant. That said, there are differences. Unlike Allegri in his setting of the same text, MacMillan clothes the chant in simple harmony. Furthermore, on the second occasion the chant veers off into melismatic writing. The closing pages of the piece, from ‘Tunc acceptabis sacrificium justitiæ’ (Then shalt Thou be pleased with the sacrifice of righteousness), are very beautiful; more than that, the music is inspired. I’ve heard this wonderful piece on a good number of occasions and I think that this present performance by Tenebrae is one of the finest I’ve experienced. Their singing is superbly controlled and the choir responds acutely to every nuance in the music.

The one piece in the programme which was new to me is I saw Eternity the other night. This setting of lines by Henry Vaughan (1621-1695) was first performed by Tenebrae in November 2021 and here they present its first recording. This is the one piece by MacMillan in which the full choir is not involved. Instead, Nigel Short calls upon similar forces to those which performed the first two Bach motets but he adds an extra alto and an additional bass; so, we have 4/3/2/3. Edward Bhesania says of MacMillan’s response to Vaughan’s poetry, “[t]here is wonder, but there is calm too. Ultimately there is a contrast here of light and dark”. The poem might have been tailor-made for MacMillan, given his ability to respond acutely to texts that express profound, visionary thoughts. I’m still absorbing the piece but already it seems to me that the music is a highly perceptive response to the text and that the piece is very beautiful. As well as the beauty, I love the occasional blazes of musical fire; these are usually associated with Vaughan’s line ‘Like a great Ring of pure, endless light’. This first recording of the piece is superb.

This marvellous programme of music by Bach and MacMillan receives terrific performances by Tenebrae. The accuracy and all-round excellence of their singing suggests the discipline (and re-takes) of a recording under studio conditions but, of course, this disc was made live, though there may have been some patching from the rehearsal. That said, I’ve experienced this expert choir in live performance more than once, so I know that the standard exhibited here is typical of their work in concert. Their singing has been expertly captured by engineer Mike Hatch, working with producer Nicholas Parker.

This is a very rewarding disc.

John Quinn

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