Friday, January 25, 2008

More Russian Winter

The Rachmaninov Vespers and All-Night Vigil, Op. 37
Signum Classics, SIG CD045


I love the idea of a music blog as an avenue for discussions with other people about music. Because the web is so large, a substantial market can congeal for almost any niche thing, including perhaps not-quite-mainstream classical music. One of the great fringe benefits of this site for me has been some wonderful input from new friends who have found their way here. A month or so ago I was introduced to the baroque lutenist and composer Sylvius Leopold Weiss, and now I've been pointed toward a great English choral group of whom I'd not previously heard, Tenebrae.

Formed in 2001 by former King's Singer member Nigel Short, Tenebrae seeks to bring an intimate Renaissance sensibility to choral performance, even of more modern works. They are known for performing by candlelight, and they specialize in optimizing their performances for the acoustics in which they sing. As we've noted before, England generally, and London specifically, is practically overrun by top-shelf vocal groups, all fed and nourished by a collection of fantastic school and church choirs, making for a culture which seems to have reached a critical, self-sustaining mass. True to form, Tenebrae's members have come from some very impressive places: the Monteverdi Choir, the choirs of Westminster Abbey and Cathedral and King’s College, Cambridge, I Fagiolini, The Tallis Scholars, The Swingle Singers, The King’s Singers, Covent Garden and English National Opera.

I picked their recording of Rachmaninov's Vespers, both because I'm in a Rachmaninov mood lately and because I recently reviewed The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir's version of the same piece, so a contrast seemed inevitable. (The EPCC in that recording was led by yet another Londoner, the brilliant Paul Hillier.) And boy, it's a tough task to choose among them. Interpretively, the two choirs are coming from a similar sensibility, so that no identifiable slant of vision distinguishes one performance from the other. Tempos are similarly middling, and both choirs are fairly relaxed in their projection, not resorting to extreme dynamics to make their case; fortissimos are reserved for key moments. The Tenebrae recording is in a smaller acoustic, and there is a bit more closeness and intimacy here; I think the reverberation on Hillier's recording serves the piece very well, giving blend and mystery, though this is purely a personal preference (and not a consistent one: I generally like to hear as much detail as possible). I also find just a wee bit more polish in the Estonian solo voices, plus I fancy there is some indefinable Slavic resonance. But the Tenebrae recording is really excellent, and I'm eager to explore their catalog further.

Each new reading of a piece illuminates something not emphasized by others, giving us a fuller and deeper understanding of the score, and the Tenebrae recording is careful and thoughtful and a happy addition to my collection.

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