Cumnock Tryst: Tenebrae / Forshaw

Cumnock Old Church

Before a simple, effective – and almost unbearably moving – arrangement of the hymn Abide With Me was performed as an encore by the six singers of Tenebrae and saxophonist Christian Forshaw, the choir’s director Nigel Short acknowledged the inspiration of the Hilliard Ensemble and Jan Garbarek in this combination of talents.

Much though I love the ECM recordings Garbarek and the Hilliards made – and Officium is now closing in on 30 years old – there was more warmth, and a quite distinctive sound, to the world premiere of this sequence by Tenebrae and Forshaw, under the title of the Orlando Gibbons hymn Drop, drop slow tears.

This was the choir’s debut at Cumnock Tryst – 2021’s alternative to the absence of Harry Christophers and The Sixteen perhaps – and part of Forshaw’s residency at the festival. James MacMillan has helped foster a collaboration that sounds very much as if it has legs, not least because the arrangements the saxophonist and Short brought to the project seemed very much cut from the same cloth.

Not all the music was presented in an altered state. The hour or so began with the Gibbons sung “straight” and ended with a Short arrangement that sounded close kin to Forshaw’s earlier treatment of Thomas Tallis’s O nata lux. Short also brought some creative use of the acoustic of the space, a high soprano delivering Hildegard von Bingen from “off-stage” and he himself instigating a semi-processional Incipit Lamentatio Gregorian chant.

Forshaw, who mostly performed from the pulpit but joined the singers to replace the contralto with alto sax on later Tallis, added compositions of his own to the mix. The modern language of Renouncement was nicely answered with Victoria’s Reproaches and In paradisum gave a rare showcase to the bass-baritone of the group.

In Garbarek fashion, Forshaw often favoured the soprano instrument, sometimes in dialogue with the choir’s soprano, but as well as alto he also added some subtle bass clarinet to the mix. Yes, Tenebrae and Forshaw owe a debt of recognition to the musicians who sold so many albums of sax and early vocal music, but Drop, Drop Slow Tears takes the recipe in a direction that is all their own.

The sound on the streamed version of this concert, which is available until Friday October 8, is superb, and the camerawork limited and unshowy, so not distracting. It is possible, however, that the Tryst may wish it had been able to devote more budget to the filming when the programme becomes more widely appreciated.

Keith Bruce