Review: Arvo Pärt’s Passio from Tenebrae and Aurora Orchestra at St John’s Smith Square

Oratorios are a strange listening experience for a non-believer. Liturgical music even more so. I attend such performances with an assumption that I should really be a fully 'paid-up member' of the belief system before I can fully appreciate the work I'm about to listen to.  

After Arvo Pärt's Passio last night at St John's Smith Square, I'm a little bit closer to finalising a listening strategy for such performances.

What drew me to this event – the selling point I used to hook my OH in – was the chance to hear Tenebrae live. Their latest release on Signum had a big impact on me, Schoenberg's Friede auf Erden particularly stunning). The cynic in me questioned whether what I had responded to emotionally – the warm tone and lavishly-upholstered legato – was the result of a production process.

It wasn't. Tenebrae is like that live. A small group of voices not only sings with unflinching power and an awesome sound but does so without fussiness or distraction.

And, as there turned out to be on stage last night when one of their own faints part-way through the performance, first-responding colleagues move swiftly to provide the necessary support whilst still miraculously ensuring the atmosphere all on the platform have worked hard to create remains intact. They are, quite simply, remarkable performers on a whole variety of levels.

Arvo Pärt's score is lean. Melodic motifs capture the natural rhythms and cadence of the passion text. The resulting musical language has a raw simplicity to, powered by a spirit depicted in the contrary motion heard between the instruments and the voices. The end product isn't soporific by any means, but hypnotic. Subtle shifts of urgency and intensity are introduced with suspended notes linking transitioning chords – a sort of pedal note but implemented in reverse. There were moments when the intensity was almost too much too bear – a sort of emotional pain of an entirely different kind from the everyday and one that promises to linger long beyond the performance is over. I've experienced that in performances of Mahler symphonies before now. That kind of experience is down to the alchemy in the music.

It's also an efficient piece of storytelling where each word appears to be given equal weight, statements are hurried, and meaning isn't lost. The performance didn't tarry by any means; the work allows everyone the time to consider what it is that we're listening to. 

Bass Jimmy Holliday overcame some difficulties with his voices, playing the role of Jesus with touching humility, and warmth. Of the Evangelist chorus – a beguiling interweaving of human voices that gave the narrative an almost balletic quality throughout – special mention to David de Winter (tenor) and Hannah Cooke (mezzo) whose sang with poise, precision and a delectable tone.

Come the end, conductor Nigel Short held a silent stage and audience at St John's Smith Square hanging for what felt like an eternity. No-one moved. No-one dared. No-one could. Such was the impact of 75 minutes concluded by a blistering Amen. Remarkably focussed music-making.

Review: Symphony Psalms & Prayers / Tenebrae / BBC Symphony Orchestra

Symphonic Psalms and Prayers from Tenebrae and the BBC Symphony Orchestra is a beautifully curated selection of choral works by Berstein, Stravinsky and Zemlinsky. The crowning glory is undoubtedly a recording of Schoenberg work Friede auf Erden.

It’s also a stunningly produced recording capturing two recording locations – Maida Vale studios and St Augustine’s Church in Kilburn – but four distinct sound worlds.

Stravinsky’s three movement ‘symphony’ for voices and orchestra has a dry theatrical pit sound. The padded intimacy surrounding the chamber orchestra gives this performance an irresistible sense of urgency and menace.

Tenebrae‘s smooth texture punctuated by cut glass consonants make Friede auf Erden the real highpoint of the album. Schoenberg’s constantly shifting harmonies are spun into increasingly intense harmonic climaxes. Tenebrae’s exquisite performance is bright sunshine cutting through a deep blue sky. I absolutely adore this. Revelatory.

The production choices made for Berstein’s Chichester Psalms provide this album with another fresh perspective, giving the BBC Symphony Orchestra far greater depth than I’ve heard before, emphasising the vast musical (almost Copland-esque) canvas in Bernstein’s score. This expansive sound is contrasted deftly with a dry precise articulation in the second movement. And at the beginning of the third movement, a string sound shaped by audiophiles for audiophiles, demonstrating breathtaking dynamic contrasts, and gripping ensemble playing.

I was less keen on the Zemlinksy, although musically it’s inclusion at the end of the album did work. In terms of material I’m less convinced about some of the twee-sounding moments in his setting of Psalm 23 compared to say the comparatively more sophisticated musical orthodoxy Bernstein brings to his score in the Chichester Psalms.

Sure, I know that sounds a bit pompous. All I really mean is, I think Bernstein’s twee-ness is more convincing in the context of the Chichester Psalms than Zemlinsky’s.

But it’s a very minor point. One wonders why I’ve even bothered to mention it because to my mind Tenebrae and the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Symphonic Psalms is the most brilliant thing about 2018 so far. And whilst I don’t really wash with awards and understand less how they’re decided on, I think I’d like to see this pick one up for Signum.

Discover Tenebrae’s Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Berstein album on Idagio
Symphonic Psalms with Tenebrae and the BBC Symphony Orchestra is also available on Spotify