Today’s Halloween album was written to be sung by candlelight while each candle is extinguished one by one, until the singers and audience are left in total darkness. Its title make perfect sense: Tenebrae Responsories.
Tenebrae translates literally from the Latin as “shadows.” but commonly means darkness. Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria published this somber choral suite in 1585. It’s a setting of fire-and-brimstone biblical texts about exile, wartime occupation, betrayal, torture, suicide and a few more upbeat things. At the center of the narrative are the Lamentations of Jeremiah, mourning the loss of Jerusalem in a 6th century BC Babylonian invasion. Stile Antico, the world’s most popular Renaissance choir, have released a characteristically insightful, nuanced recording, streaming at Spotify. Divided up into 22 tracks, this new edit of the suite contains the high points of an epic that by any account must have been strenuous (and often utterly redundant) for the singers in mass to perform at the time it was written.
Since taking Europe by storm in the late zeros, Stile Antico have put out a dozen albums, and tour the world constantly. Through it all, their roster has remained pretty stable. They’re singing a different program – English Elizabethan works by Byrd, Tallis, Lassus and innumerable others – tonight, Oct 13 at 8 PM at a familiar and well-suited haunt, the Church of St. Mary the Virgin at 145 W 46th St. to open this season’s Miller Theatre early music program. You can get into this reverb-rich space for $30.
As with most of the group’s albums, the Tenebrae Responsories were recorded in similar sonics at All Hallows’ Church in the north London neighborhood of Gospel Oak. The beginning of the suite is very spare and austere, far more northern European sounding than you would necessarily expect from a Spanish composer. The voices of the group’s women quickly take centerstage, more or less, in parts originally written for boys.
Counterpoint rises toward proto-operatic bluster and then subsides. Stately tempos juxtapose with moments of more atmospheric resonance. Sparse, hypnotically monkish plainchant interludes from the men meet with steady, pulsing passages from the whole choir. The harmonies grow more lush and ambered as the suite continues. It never reaches grand guignol heights, but that’s the point: the cyclical harmonies and absence of dramatic key changes make it as serious as life and death in the wake of the Spanish Inquisition.
And it’s another notch on the collective scorebooks of sopranos Helen Ashby, Kate Ashby and Rebecca Hickey; altos Emma Ashby, Eleanor Harries and Katie Schofield. tenors Ross Buddie, Andrew Griffiths and Thomas Kelly; and basses Will Dawes, Thomas Flint and Matthew O’Donovan. They’re bolstered here by tenor and former group member Benedict Himas and bass Simon Gallear.