Tenebrae Performs Brahms & Bruckner Motets

Mark Templeton, Helen Vollam and Patrick Jackman conducted by Nigel Short

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COMPOSERS: Brahms,Bruckner
LABELS: Signum
ALBUM TITLE: Tenebrae Performs Brahms & Bruckner Motets
WORKS: Brahms: Fest- und Gedenksprüche; Ave Maria; How lovely are Thy dwellings; Three Motets, Op. 110; Geistliches Lied, Op. 30; Bruckner: Aequalis Nos 1 & 2; Virga Jesse; Ecce sacerdos; Christus factus est; Locus iste; Os justi; Ave Maria; Tota pulchra es
PERFORMER: Tenebrae/Nigel Short; Mark Templeton, Helen Vollam, Patrick Jackman (trombone)


In their own lifetimes, Brahms and Bruckner stood on either side of an ideological fault-line. Brahms was held up as the great ‘Classical-Romantic’, Bruckner was a poster boy for the Wagnerian ‘progressives’. Spiritually too they seemed poles apart. Brahms was a declared atheist, Bruckner a fervent Roman Catholic. Yet, fascinatingly, both shared an intense preoccupation with religious texts and imagery, married to a lively interest in the church music from the Baroque and Renaissance past. In striking parallel, Bruckner and Brahms explored all this in a series of exquisite short choral works which, though musically much more concentrated, can be every bit as rewarding as the symphonies – they’re miniatures only in time-scale. By interweaving some of the best of these in this imaginative way, Nigel Short and Tenebrae have come up with a beautifully balanced and contrasted programme. Sampling individual pieces will yield its rewards of course, but experiencing the disc whole takes the listener to another level. Short’s decision to use two of Bruckner’s Aequali for trombones as prelude and postlude was an inspiration – rather like a priestly invocation and dismissal at a strange but captivating religious rite. The beauty of sound and dignified intensity of expression Tenebrae create in the opening of the first choral number, Bruckner’s Virga Jesse, would be impressive in themselves, but with the ear prepared by the first Aequalis the effect is even more telling. If the first of Brahms’s Fest- und Gedenksprüche initially sounds rather matter-of-fact, down-to-earth after Bruckner’s luxurious mysticism, by the time we reach the quietly ecstatic ending of the third motet the bürgerlich Northern Protestant mask has dropped. And again, what superb singing: technically immaculate, somehow lucid and voluptuously beautiful at the same time. (At times the women’s voices sound so pure you might even mistake them for boys.)


Putting the Brahms and Bruckner Ave Maria settings not quite side-by-side, but near enough for comparison was similarly inspired. The rapturous ‘Amen’ conclusion of Brahms’s Geistliches Lied makes a wonderful conclusion to the choral sequence, then Bruckner touchingly adds his own wordless Amen in the final trombone Aequalis. The whole disc leaves one thinking that, if only these two men could have been freed from the artistic-political constraints and clamour of their time, they might have been able to appreciate and enjoy each other’s genius. Fortunately there are no such constraints for us now. The recording captures the gorgeous Temple Church acoustic faithfully, yet no detail is lost. Stephen Johnson