Top critical review
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This would fail to hook the first-time listener
on 18 December 2012
I am on record, on this site, as suggesting that this piece is the supreme masterpiece of twentieth century music. I haven't changed my mind. It is very challenging, demanding excellent intonation and diction. Choirs without the ability to convince in the Russian Orthodox idiom will fail, while those able to sing well and clearly in the original language may lack the necessary tonal range. Bulgarian, Ukrainian and Russian performances have all been found wanting in the soprano register, while few (if any) western choirs, for many years, could approach the necessary depth of the Orthodox bass. That all changed with the Best / Corydon Singers (Hyperion), followed by Short / Tenebrae (Signum). I thought the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir joined the elite in 2008, although some seem to find that rendering a bit soulless. I'd happily recommend any of those.
This one should be in the same league, but it really isn't. The singing is beautiful, the recording accomplished, possibly a bit fuzzy. I think that the diction falls short of the best; I can't always tell in which language anyone is singing, but that may be a shortcoming in the recording. The real problem, however, is that this performance manages to be excruciatingly dull. Rachmaninov composed this masterpiece astonishingly quickly, in 1915, to help in the war effort. Shouldn't that sense of urgency be reflected in the music? It usually is, even in those seventies Bulgarian recordings with all sorts of technical deficiencies. The programme notes are right to pick out "Blagosloven yesi, Gospodi" as the heart of the work, but I don't think I have ever heard a performance fail so dismally to convey that (and I have listened to plenty, over the years). It is just so slow. I haven't compared actually performance times. It may be that, comparatively, it isn't notably slow. The fact is, though, that it sounds slow and, as the great Sir Thomas Beecham pointed out, when it comes to music, "the way it sounds" is what matters. This choir has the quality to succeed, but it hasn't succeeded in this instance.
The notes are in English and Finnish. My own favourite recorded performance, for what that matters, is the Signum one, but I don't think anyone disputes the ground-breaking quality of the Hyperion recording.