Perth Festival / Tenebrae

St John’s Kirk, Perth

Goodness knows how many times we heard the word “Maria” sung in this Perth Festival performance by the superlative vocal ensemble Tenebrae under its founding director Nigel Short. At one point Górecki, in his motet Totus tuus, treats the word with such plaintive repetition it almost turns into the famous hit number from West Side Story. But this was an altogether more religious affair: a programme called Queen of Heaven dedicated to music inspired by the sanctity of the Virgin Mary.

If the setting seemed perfect, the ancient cathedral-like architecture of St John’s Kirk with its golden acoustics, an idle thought that the anti-Marian John Knox launched Scottish protestantism on this very spot did warrant a moment of ironic reflection.

But that was instantly washed aside by the integrity of performances that certainly didn’t hold back on the theatre and passion. It began with a rearguard assault, a piercing cry of “Maria” from the back of the St John’s nave, Tenebrae issuing the shrill declamatory opening of the Górecki with the same electrifying fullness that was to inform the entire evening. 

Whether in the seamless polyphony of Robert Parson’s 16th century Ave Maria, or the infectiously chaotic and exotic modernism of Giles Swayne’s 1982 Magnificat, this was a brand of choral singing that combined impeccable homogeneity with penetrating expressive range. Intonation was unshakeable, but the tonal options were never restrained. The bass voices reverberated in the rich acoustics, the high soprano notes ecstatic in flight, between which the inner parts wove with tastefulness and purpose. 

It was enlightening, too, to experience such rarely-heard Ave Marias as Bruckner’s seraphic setting, compared to the cool austerity of Stravinsky’s Russian Orthodox version. Or the more effusive and worldly Ave maris stella by Greig and Mater ora ilium by Bax, with Britten’s simple, strophic Hymn to the Virgin allowing a breakaway ensemble to enjoy a moment of blissful antiphony.

The second half opened with the haunting primitivism of Owain Park’s Ave maris stella and the unaffected lucidity of Tavener’s Mother of God, before interweaving a series of palate-cleansing chants with the lushness of Verdi (his Laudi all Vergine Maria for upper voices), the bittersweet piquancy of Poulenc’s Salve Regina and the euphoric climax provided by nonagenarian Margaret Rizza’s plainsong-inspired Ave generosa. 

Perth is currently celebrating its 50th annual Festival of the Arts. If Monday’s demonstration of choral perfection by Tenebrae is anything to go by, it’s doing so in style. 

Ken Walton