Passiontide – a period of preparation for the death of Christ – is a sombre affair. Purple shrouds cover the often decorated crosses in church and choirs sing of the last days of Christ's life. Out of this deep sorrow and mourning came some of the most stunning choral music ever written. We asked some of Britain's top choral conductors to tell us about their favourite works…
James Macmillan – Seven Last Words
I conducted this work in the City of London Festival and it was one of the most profound musical experiences I’ve ever had. Even out of season (the concert was in July) it left me and many others – performers and audience members – with a feeling of utter desolation. Nothing in the choral repertoire quite encapsulates the final moments of a life. The tension starts from the very first chord and doesn’t let up for a second all the way through. There are passages that so clearly reflect what’s going on physically that it can cause moments of great shock. The final page is almost unbearable as the writing echoes the very final breaths of Christ. If you are able to experience the drama of Holy Week either liturgically or musically over the whole week then this work provides you with the most bitter of climaxes imaginable. In his recording of it, Graham Ross balances precision with passion to an extraordinary degree. Some achievement for one so young, as he was when he recorded it.
– Nigel Short, Tenebrae
Thomas Luis de Victoria – Tenebrae Responsories
The Passiontide piece I have chosen is Victoria’s magnificent Tenebrae Responsories, part of a great body of work the industrious Tomás Luis de Victoria wrote for Holy Week. I first came to know this piece whilst singing it at university, and was struck by the way it expresses grief and suffering in the most exquisite and heart rending way. However, with this consistent narrative of pain it is vital that a good performance finds the individual inflections and voices within the work; therefore, the recording I’d most readily recommend is the 2013 release from Tenebrae (Signum SIGCD344). It’s a beautifully nuanced and expressive recording of this moving work.
– Suzi Digby, ORA Singers
Dieterich Buxtehude – Membra Jesu nostri
I first encountered this work as a student at Cambridge, and was immediately struck by the expressive beauty of it. Neatly structured around texts from a medieval Latin hymn, ‘Salve mundi salutare’, each of the seven short cantatas in Buxtehude’s cycle address a different part of Christ’s crucified body, as observed by a witness at the foot of the cross. Scored for five-part vocal ensemble, two violins and continuo, the work is full of invention, each cantata beginning with an instrumental sonata, and with a chorus movement performed either side of various solo arias. I remember vividly discovering Buxtehude’s ingenious change of scoring to represent the soul of Christ’s body in the fifth movement, ‘Ad cor’ (‘To the heart’), where he employs the uniquely intimate, expressive qualities of a viol consort. I was so taken by the work that for one my of first commissions as a composer I selected and set a text from the Book of Hours, ‘Precor te, Domine’, in which the face of the dying Christ is further broken up into its individual qualities, as a kind of further exploration of the final movement of Buxtehude’s cycle, ‘Ad faciem’ (‘To the face’).
– Graham Ross, The Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
Francis Poulenc – Sept Repons de Tenebres
This is the last work Poulenc composed and it is Poulenc at his most scintillating. About thirty years ago I turned on the radio eager to hear this work. I was expectant but in the end so frustrated and annoyed. I even phoned the producer to complain – had no-one listened to this recording before transmitting it. It was quite simply a travesty and from that moment I was determined to one day redress the balance. I hope I have done the work justice; it has all the complexity of the vocal writing of his Lenten motets, all those personal touches but accompanied by a full symphony orchestra abounding in that characteristic sound world of his.
– Harry Christophers, The Sixteen
James MacMillan – Miserere mei, Deus (Psalm 51)
Perhaps it is a little inappropriate to describe a piece for Passiontide as having the 'wow' factor but, with the atmosphere this piece sets and the journey that it takes you on, it leaves me emotionally drained and spiritually uplifted in one hearing. As with all MacMillan's work, there is complete integrity matched with an extraordinary sense for atmosphere. The walk from despair to promise starts with an opening that is dark, bleak, and ominous. Through the anguished torment of chromatic and searching soprano duets to full choral cries and some exquisitely harmonised plainchant (mirroring the famous Allegri setting of the same Psalm) the listener is rewarded with a stunning and radiant conclusion.
– Neil Ferris, BBC Symphony Chorus
Thomas Tallis – Lamentations
Sets of Lamentations have long been an essential element in the work of the Tallis Scholars. The fact that they are extra-liturgical means they can be sung at almost any time of the year in concert without apology, but they are certainly at their most apposite in Lent and Passiontide. Musically-speaking they offer a moving balance between completely abstract music, in the Hebrew letters, and passionate text. Many renaissance composers were drawn to set these words, but perhaps the most successful remain the two by Tallis.
– Peter Phillips, Tallis Scholars
Francis Poulenc – Quatre motets pour un temps de penitence
With their chromatic harmonies, sudden dynamic contrasts between phrases, and abrupt changes of texture, mood and time signature, these motets are typical of the composer’s choral style. The first two, Timor et tremor and Vinea mea electai, are more modest in scope than the latter motets, Tenebrae factae sunt and Tristis est anima mea, which are more stylistically progressive even though they were written first. Of the many recordings available the one by The Sixteen conducted by Harry Christophers is among the best – full of drama and intense emotion.
– Esther Jones, The National Youth Choirs of Great Britain