Review of Tenebrae - A Prayer for Deliverance

"It was simply magnificent from start to finish, with too many highlights to mention." writes Garry Fraser.

If the organisers of the Perth Festival have one un-written law, it’s this – secure the services of a world-class choral ensemble for a performance in St John’s Kirk. It’s a time-honoured tradition and one that has always led to an evening of top-class choral splendour. This year Nigel Short’s Tenebrae did the honours – and boy didn’t they deliver the goods! Suitable superlatives are hard to find when it comes to summing up their performance on Friday night. It was simply magnificent from start to finish, with too many highlights to mention.

The concert was called A Prayer For Deliverance, with an underlying theme of rest and repose. Passion, too. The mood of the music and the texts thereof was reflected in the mood of the audience, transfixed with what was before them. There was also an underlying theme of superb balance, exquisite phrasing and multi-layered harmonies with a complexity on occasion that would have even the best choral scholar scurrying for shelter. Volume control was carried out seemingly with a flick of a switch and the completion of phrases where the final consonant faded away superbly was another hallmark of a choir in top, top form. They made it look so simple, but that’s the combination of natural talent and hours of honing things to perfection. That, and Nigel Short’s subtle yet effective direction.

There was virtuosity too, particularly in the 16-part Prayer Of Deliverance by American composer Joel Thomson, the work being given its UK premiere in the ensemble’s current tour. But it would be unfair to single out a particular piece as each one was as good as the one before. Holst’s The Evening Watch started the proceedings and from there on it was a constant stream of choral masterpieces, each dealt with consummate precision and expertise by Short’s charges.

The first half yielded few well-known works – to me, at least – but if you wanted an introduction to compositions by McDowell, Vaughan Williams and Caroline Shaw who better to do so than this superb ensemble. I was on more familiar territory in the second half, with Howells, Tavener and Sullivan all ringing true.  

For those who enjoy choral music, either as a performer or as a listener, he or she would have left the Kirk marvelling at what they’d heard. You might not have left humming an air from one of the works but you would have left on a high, knowing that you’ve witnessed yet another fantastic evening of choral excellence.

By Garry Fraser