A little while ago I reviewed The Sixteen's A New Heaven, a survey of some of the schmaltzier corners of the English choral repertoire, and found it a pretty lifeless affair. In some ways, this disc bears comparison, inasmuch as it presents English choral music from the Twentieth Century, performed by a slick, professional chamber choir. Thankfully, the comparison ends about there.
Firstly, the music here is a good deal more substantial, and generally much more interesting than that on the Sixteen's disc: Parry's 'Songs of Farewell' are a cracking set of late romantic songs, vaguely religious in temper, but flying no definite flag of allegiance to any one sect. Some are well known, such as 'My soul, there is a country' and 'Lord, let me know mine end', but there's just as much value in the others, too. The rest of the disc is filled with a satisfying variety of acapella partsongs and motets, ranging from Tavener's austere 'Funeral Ikos', through Howells' masterpiece 'Take him, earth, for cherishing', as well as Richard Rodney Bennett's charming 'A Good-Night'. Nigel Short has had fun with the programming, too: Elgar couldn't stand Parry, but his 'They are at rest' nestles snugly next to the 'Songs of Farewell'. The set concludes with the lovely 'Bring us, o Lord God', by Harris.
Among the current crop of slick, professional chamber choirs doing the rounds, Tenebrae are probably the most unafraid of actually singing, and it is the quality of the sound that never ceases to impress on this disc. Nigel Short draws beautiful pianissimo work, but never shies away from really giving it the beans when the music calls for it. The sound is always polished yet always thoroughly engaging: it sounds like the singers actually believe what they are singing, and that lifts even the lighter numbers in the selection into being genuinely rewarding to listen to.
The mood is sombre throughout, but this is a disc to which I will be returning time and again. Highly recommended.
It pains me to write this, but this is for me the first Tenebrae disc that has underwhelmed. Tenebrae's motto is "precision and passion" - there's plenty of the former, but none of the latter, in this disc. Technically the performance is exremely fine, but the highly polished sheen I'm afraid in this performance feels too emotionally detached, and Nigel Short's direction gets bogged down, especially in the more complex final two movements of the Parry Songs of Farewell. I believe there are more emotional, and passionate, performances of this repertoire out there - many many UK choirs have recorded the Parry (in particular) and it's worth seeking them out as an alternative.
Following some positive reviews in the Classic Music Press, I bought this album expecting something special and I wasn't disappointed. Some of the most uplifting music I have heard, beautifully produced to give the listener a perfect sense of peace and atonement. Tenebrae and Nigel Short serve up a feast of beauty that I would recommend to anyone in need of a boost.