Candelabras ringed the stage for British choir Tenebrae’s Masterworks of the Renaissance program, the slow consumption of their candles charting the passage of time and eerily punctuating the cathedral-like mood the ensemble set with the crackle of wax stalagmites falling to shatter on the stage. It was the a cappella sound of the choir itself, though – led by director Nigel Short – that struck the audience, the pure bell-like sopranos and silver sheen of the tenors direct and engaging in the opening Versa est in luctum by Alonso Lobo, written at the end of the 16th century in memory of Philip II of Spain.

TenebraeNigel Short and Tenebrae. Photo © Yaya Stempler

The choir’s sound took on a brighter gleam in selections from Tomás Luis de Victoria’s Responsories, bringing to the Spanish polyphony a blazing passion that quietened into the hush of the final Sepulto Domino. The singers split across City Recital Hall’s choir stalls and organ loft to bring an added spatial depth to Gregorio Allegri’s setting of the Miserere mei, Deus (Psalm 51) – the once closely guarded work that, according to legend, a young Mozart transcribed by ear when he heard it at St Peter’s Basilica – here given a moving, deeply human performance by Tenebrae.

The second half of the concert was devoted to Victoria’s setting of the Requiem Mass, to which Tenebrae brought clear diction, and a confident, well-balanced sound. The choir delivered a flowing, breathing account and the blooming light of the Kyrie was a particular highlight, as was the warmth of the Sanctus. This was formidable singing: there were only occasional moments when entries were anything less than pinpoint accurate, and the ensemble’s intonation and balance was exemplary throughout.

In contrast to the spare lines of the Renaissance polyphony, Tenebrae’s second concert in Sydney, Music of the Spheres, opened with the lusher harmonies of Holst’s The Evening-Watch, the choir proving just as precise in a more extrovert program of English music from the 20th century and beyond. The first half was largely devoted to Hubert Parry’s poignant Songs of Farewell – written against the backdrop of the First World War, during which a number of Parry’s students were killed – the choir delivering biting accents and taut crescendos.

Death permeated much of this program – the second half opening with Elgar’s O Wild West Wind and two settings of text from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (O Mistress Mine and Come Away, Death by Herbert Murrill) before the vocal chiming of Full Fathom Five, the first of three settings of Shakespeare by Vaughan Williams, brought the Bard’s “rich and strange” text from The Tempest to haunting life. This trio of songs was written as test pieces for the 1951 National Competition Festival of the British Federation of Music but Tenebrae surmounted their challenges with easy panache, and they were a highlight of the program, as was The Drowned Lovers, a vivid work – featuring the dark, plangent mezzo of soloist Martha McLorinan – by Judith Bingham, who just this year was awarded an OBE for her services to music. The beautiful, disturbing piece was composed as a partner work to Stanford’s The Bluebird, which followed, the tranquillity of Stanford’s luminous setting of words by Mary E Coleridge now shot through with the grim knowledge of death below the lake’s still surface.

The concert ended on a more uplifting note, with the rhythmic breathing of Bob Chilcott’s The Modern Man I Sing, three songs setting text by Walt Whitman and opening with The Runner. Chilcott – who was also represented earlier in the program with his murmuring Marriage to my Lady Poverty, setting text by Charles Bennett – is like Short a former King’s Singer, and his deep knowledge of choral forces comes through in his writing, which brought the concert to a close with resplendent colour. The audience wanted more, however, Short returning to the stage to lead the choir in Robert Pearsall’s exquisite Lay a Garland. All in all, an impressive Sydney debut.