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Not this time...
on 16 February 2014
According to the blurb on the back of this disc, Classic FM has declared…”Tenebrae is current master of the Russian Sound.” Er, no; that’s exactly what they are not and five minutes’ comparison with genuine Russian choirs will confirm it. My touchstones are venerable past and present choirs in my collection such as the Novospassky Monastery Choir, the Russian State Symphonic Capella and the State Academic Russian Choir USSR – or even the Bulgarian National Choir, obviously non-native but still steeped in the right choral tradition.
I have hitherto unstintingly admired and praised every release from this wonderful choir that I have heard. Tenebrae sings beautifully, of course, and their artistic director and founder Nigel Short is a superb singer-musician, but he is not Polyansky or Sveshnikov and this latest issue is a bridge too far. Indeed, I began to lose interest some time before the end of the programme for three reasons: 1) no version here eclipses those performed by native choirs and indelibly burned in my memory as the immutable standard whereby any subsequent performance must be judged; 2) the interpretations are so similar and unvaried in mood that I get no sense of the spiritual conviction which should inform the text; almost every piece is redolent of the atmosphere of a devotional offering sung in the chapel of an English country house or an Oxbridge College; 3) the essential sound is that of an English choir; the basses remind me of Dr Johnson’s dog, insofar as they have the low notes but they are more groaned than resonated.
Five of the eighteen pieces here are from Rachmaninov’s famous “All-Night Vigil” and three are from his “Liturgy of St John Chrysostom”. Others inclusions are standard classics such as baritone Nikolay Kedrov’s “Our Father” (“Otche nash”); hence there is no shortage of comparative versions, so let me offer specific, individual examples of where I think Tenebrae fails to deliver. Many are gems of brevity, lasting no more than two or three minutes but extraordinarily intense both emotionally and musically. So I will not plough through every work , but let me begin with that “Our Father”, which approaches the numinous but remains much too fast and small-scale. Admittedly, it was written for a vocal quartet who sang with Chaliapin, but a voice of his type is not in evidence here and we have become used to the grand choral arrangement. The opening track is Gretchnaninov’s “Now the Powers of Heaven”; it is lovely but so refined as too lose the requisite sense of elation and the basses, although adequate, are tame. The “Nunc dimittis” (track 2) is also a full two minutes quicker than Sveshnikov’s classic version and thus far too fast. The lack of pulse means that we are cheated of the effect Rachmaninov intended of reproducing the sound great bells swinging. The celebrated concluding low B flat is “there” but little more than a simulation of the real thing and the tenor soloist sounds far too pale and polite where a ringing Russian tenor with some edge and power is needed. “Pridiite” (track 4) is yet again too fast and sounds like what it is: an English choir gently inviting us rather than a jubilant and imperative summons from Old Russia. The “Ave Maria” (track 11) has a meltingly beautiful melody with a lovely melismata on “raduysia” (“rejoice”); an echt Russian choir leans energetically into first beat of every bar; here, that effect goes for nothing. The “Alliluiya” ostinato of “Blessed is the Man” (track 12) is bland and without conviction to the point that the piece sounds like a second-rate Renaissance Requiem and nothing is made of the arresting modulations and surprising intervals; they pass without emphasis. Finally, “To Thee, Victorious Leader” (track 18), surely meant to be a glorious, climactic paean to the Pantocrator here takes on the character of a tripping medieval carol. Perhaps that explains why Tenebrae sounds most at home in the English text version of Tchaikovsky’s Legend” (track16).
If I seem ungrateful for this disc, I can only say that although I can see how this issue should be welcomed as a means of introducing a wider public to the glories of Russian liturgical music, I would nonetheless urge that new audience to sample more authentic performances in order to hear it at its best.
[This review also posted on the MusicWeb International website]