Customer Review

22 of 25 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not this time..., 16 Feb. 2014
This review is from: Russian Treasures (Audio CD)
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]
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Tracked by 2 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 13 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 18 Feb 2014 10:41:43 GMT
D. S. CROWE says:
I'm sure you are aware that BBC R3 awarded it " Disc of the Week" the very Saturday before your review. What I heard of it just underlined YOUR comments-it does sound SO "English of England"-which has its place but not in this music. Not for me. As ever, S!.

In reply to an earlier post on 18 Feb 2014 10:54:21 GMT
Last edited by the author on 18 Feb 2014 10:54:32 GMT
Ralph Moore says:
Thanks, Stewart. Nobody likes to come across as a curmudgeon - well, some do; I don't - but in an age of homogenised performance styles and obeissance to commercial pressures, the professional critics seem to be unprepared to listen properly - or maybe they simply don't have the experience or guts to be "objective". This is still impressive if you haven't heard the real thing - but we have.

I really liked Tenebrae's previous stuff so I have no animus against them; far from it.

Posted on 18 Feb 2014 16:59:24 GMT
Ralph Moore says:
I guess the recent negative vote is from someone who resents my supported opinion; yet I am absolutely convinced that I am objectively correct in my observations and think it a pity that such voters cannot tolerate dissent.

Posted on 22 Feb 2014 17:13:32 GMT
ellen holmes says:
Excellent, honest review by someone clearly knowledgeable in the authentic Russian Orthodox genre, as am i. (See my CD compilations "SACRED TREASURES: Choral Masterworks From Russia"; "SACRED TREASURES 3:Choral masterworks From Russia and Beyond"; "SACRED TREASURES 5:Music From a Russian Cathedral". I hope the reviewer won't skewer these, but if so, ce'st la vie)...

However, now that i know what to expect from this CD, i look forward to hearing it.

I wonder if the reviewer has the same opinion of the Tallis Scholars' long-ago release of "Russian Orthodox Music" (not even listed anymore on their website)! I have mixed feelings about it, but because of the particular choice of pieces, they avoided comparison with the massive Russian choirs and basses who usually perform the major works of Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky and others of the 19th and 20th centuries.

In reply to an earlier post on 22 Feb 2014 19:15:27 GMT
Ralph Moore says:
Ellen, not only do I l know about your compilation but I own it, have very favorably reviewed it and stepped in to defend it against those who were moaning that it was analogue sound not state of the art digital; I even quote you in my review:

Choral Masterworks from Russia [IMPORT]

Regarding the Tallis Scholars, I love them in the right repertoire and think they were wise to eschew direct comparison - but it's still not their Fach; why should they bother when they do so much else superbly?

Posted on 18 Mar 2014 13:52:23 GMT
Peter says:
Thou shat not trust a review that useth the overused word "numinous".

In reply to an earlier post on 18 Mar 2014 14:50:09 GMT
Ralph Moore says:
It's a word like any other and I don't over-use it, I use it once and in the way I intended. How about commenting on the content of my review rather than revealing your own linguistic preoccupations?

In reply to an earlier post on 18 Mar 2014 23:31:20 GMT
Beardsley says:
Peter: she copied that adjective from a superior intellect: vain wittle walphie has no concept of scholastic integrity: truly a modern type of hyperspace-haunting lone basement dweller.

In reply to an earlier post on 19 Mar 2014 00:13:26 GMT
Last edited by the author on 19 Mar 2014 09:22:29 GMT
Ralph Moore says:
Look at Sebby-Hal-Aprobe-Beardsley trying to make a cyber-friend by slithering up to a potential ally; it's a lonely world when your only function is to pester your betters. Never fear, Sebby: you're getting lots of attention here, where all those luscious reviews reside:

Posted on 19 Mar 2014 12:54:51 GMT
Mr. Foy says:
Another has rightly described her: 'So dull, so self-congratulatory, so flatly written, so lacking in insight. All the (barely) tolerable moments involve Walphie cribbing from those "academic" authors for whom she droningly proclaims her contempt elsewhere, in heavy narcissistic thuds.'
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Location: Bishop's Stortford, UK

Top Reviewer Ranking: 39