Tenebrae Responsories – a review of the remastered CD
A review of the CD remastering of Victoria’s Tenebrae Responsories sung by Schola Polyphonic under Maxwell Fernie by Lindis Taylor
Maxwell Fernie’s Schola Polyphonica was for twenty-one years probably the finest choir in New Zealand specializing in the music of the Renaissance. Established in 1967 at the instigation of a group of enthusiasts, it became, in addition to the Choir of St Mary of the Angels, the main vehicle for its conductor’s insights into the unique qualities of Renaissance polyphony, in particular the legacy of Gregorian chant in the wedding of music to the meaning of the words.
In a sphere in which most of the finest conductors of choral music in Ne Zealand have been Englishmen, Maxwell Fernie stands out pre-eminently as one of the few truly inspired choral conductors nurtured in New Zealand.
The choir’s only commercial recording, of Victoria’s Tenebrae Responsories of 1585, was made in 1982 by Kiwi Pacific Records, and it has now been digitally remastered for CD in a limited, numbered edition by the Maxwell Fernie Trust
I regretted not hearing the choir in concert, apart from their final public concert in 1987 when they sang Rachmaninov’s Vespers. Belatedly, I was deeply impressed, I guess as much as anything, by a piece I thought was well outside their usual repertoire. Though the fact is that Church Russian and its musical tradition is not as remote from Western European Renaissance as is the late Romantic music of Rachmaninov’s time.
In fact I was surprised at the CD launch to hear Laughton Pattrick list the range of music from all eras that the choir had sung, such as Haydn masses, Berlioz’s Romeo et Juliette and Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass.
This recording, of the work that perhaps symbolizes best the choir’s character and Maxwell Fernie’s musical passions and values, emerges with great clarity in the church’s acoustic which is so beautifully suited to the performance of Renaissance music. The sound is alive, lucid and resonant, verbal articulation exemplary and though it is not really a small choir – around 40 – the sound is far from that ultra smooth symphonic opulence of the polished English choral tradition.
Individual voices can be discerned and the intimacy between the voices and between the choir and audience is remarkable. I am sure that anyone who was in the choir could easily spot certain singers, especially the males. There are some voices of unusual timbre, but their musicality, and it is Maxwell Fernie’s gift to make a virtue of them, to make them sound, nevertheless, as one.
But it’s the music that emerges triumphant. Though I’m not, essentially, a devotee of recorded music – it’s very much second best to the real thing, but valuable in letting us hear unfamiliar music, performers we won’t otherwise hear, as archive, as a source of musical reference, and so on – this performance of a great masterpiece gripped my attention throughout; with the persuasiveness of its discourse, the ebb and flow of rhythms free from any rigidity imposed by bar lines, and the way the Latin words were inflected, infused with meaning.
Twenty-five years later, it stands the test of time and its reissue offers a new generation evidence of a unique choir working under a great choral conductor in music in which they were perhaps equaled but not excelled, anywhere in the world.
Is the Trust’s next task the unearthing of the recordings, if they still exist, made by the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation of other performances by this choir, alone and with the NZSO, as well as of St Mary’s Choir and of Maxwell Fernie’s organ playing?
Lindis Taylor was the editor of the New Zealand Opera News from 1990-2006 and is a music reviewer for The Dominion Post