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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Vespers (All Night Vigil), Op. 37 (1915) [57’16"]
Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, Op. 31(1910): ‘Tebe Poyem’ [3’02"]
Frances Jellard (alto); Paul Badley (tenor)
Tenebrae/Nigel Short
Recorded live as part of the North Wales International Music Festival at St. Asaph Cathedral, 24 September 2004 DDD

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Tenebrae make their concerts visual experiences as well as musical events. They wear deep purple robes, like cassocks, and illuminate the performance stage with a few substantial candelabras. I can imagine, therefore, that this performance of Rachmaninov’s great sacred masterpiece must have been a potent experience for the audience gathered in St. Asaph Cathedral.

There is no point in comparing this recording with one from Eastern Europe. Tenebrae, for all their virtues don’t possess the Slavonic timbre of a choir such as the St. Petersburg Capella and that applies across the voices; it’s not simply a question that a Western choir lacks the cavernous Russian basses. Tenebrae’s performance doesn’t belong in that tradition, nor does it pretend so to do. Instead, they come head to head into competition with other crack Western choirs, and most especially with the Corydon Singers, whose award-winning 1990 Hyperion disc still remains a formidable rival.

Actually, these two performances are different in several important ways. Nigel Short, directing Tenebrae, appears to have a fairly intimate conception of the Vespers (I propose to use the incorrect shorthand title, simply for ease of reference.) That’s not to say that this account lacks weight and substance at critical moments. However, Tenebrae consists of thirty singers. By comparison, I suspect the Corydon Singers was a larger body on their recording – it certainly sounds larger. I’ve seen them perform this work twice in unforgettable late night concerts in the 1990s in Gloucester Cathedral during two separate Three Choirs Festivals. If memory serves me right the choir then numbered between forty and fifty.

However, it’s not just in size of ensemble that the two performances differ. Nigel Short’s reading of the Vespers occupies just about 57 minutes. Matthew Best’s reading, recorded under studio conditions, comes in at 66’27". The music never sounds rushed in Short’s hands (nor does it drag with Best) but he’s quicker overall than Best in nearly every movement, sometimes appreciably so. Best seems to be aiming at a grander conception. The difference extends to, and indeed is magnified somewhat by the recorded sound afforded to each. Short’s very satisfactory recording has the singers relatively close to us (though there’s adequate resonance and space round the sound.) Best’s choir are recorded at a bit more of a distance (though no detail is lost) and sing in a more resonant, more obviously ecclesiastical acoustic (they were recorded in St Alban’s Church, Holborn, London.)

Though I point out these differences I must say that each account works very well on its own merits. I like the urgency that Short imparts to the opening movement Priidite, poklonimsya) (‘Come, let us worship’) but, having said that I do also appreciate the greater degree of weight that Best achieves at a slightly broader tempo.

In the succeeding movement, Blagoslovi, dushe moya (‘Bless the Lord, O my soul’) there are some beautifully limpid vocal textures from Tenebrae and their basses descend with quiet sonority at the end. Frances Jellard is a good soloist but I have a sneaking preference for Joya Logan (Corydons), partly because I like the pure sound of her voice and partly because the slightly greater distance at which she’s positioned from the microphone gives a preferable sense of space.

The other soloist is a tenor, who features in three movements, most prominently in the famous setting of the Nunc Dimittis, Nyne otpushchaeshi. Paul Badley sings well for Short but John Bowen, Best’s plangent tenor, is more satisfying. Bowen sounds more at ease with the cruelly taxing tessitura and Best’s gently swaying tempo strikes me as near ideal. At the end of this movement is the famous passage where the basses descend very quietly to a low B flat. Both choirs do well here and though I suspect Short has fewer basses at his command his singers go down into the basement with splendid control.

Other sections that are especially worthy of note in this Tenebrae performance include the well-known Bogoroditse Devo (‘Hail, O Virgin Mother of God’). This exquisite movement is shaped quite beautifully and rises to fervent, brief climax. In Khvalite imya Gospodne (‘Praise ye the name of the Lord’) there’s a joyful spring in Tenebrae’s singing and the final movement, Vzbrannoy voevode (‘O Victorious Leader’) dances ecstatically.

This Tenebrae performance, then, is one of real stature and I enjoyed it very much. It doesn’t quite dislodge the Corydon Singers as my preferred choice for a reading by a Western choir but it runs them close. Tenebrae sing with the precision and finely produced tone that one has come to expect from them. Their singing is splendidly controlled, whether in soft passages or in the fervent climaxes.

As an encore they sing one short movement from Rachmaninoff’s earlier Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, Op. 31. This is a hushed movement of exquisite tenderness that features a gently soaring soprano solo. The unnamed soloist sings beautifully.

The CD comes with good notes and the transliterated text and an English translation are provided. The recorded sound is very pleasing. The only slight quibble I have is over the inclusion of applause. Unlike several of my colleagues I quite like to hear applause at the end of a live recording as it reminds one that this was a genuine performance in front of real people. However, after the Vespers we hear slightly over one minute of applause, which is surely excessive. Also, I wouldn’t have allowed any applause to intrude after the rapt encore.

But that’s a minor quibble and doesn’t detract from the overall excellence of this disc. If you already have the Corydon Singers version in your collection I think you can rest content. If not, however, this newcomer is well worth considering. It’s surely not insignificant that both of these fine recordings are conducted by men who are themselves experienced singers. I warmly recommend this new recording and am glad to have it as well as that by Matthew Best in my own collection.

John Quinn

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