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Russian Treasures
see end of review for track listing
Tenebrae/Nigel Short
rec. 8-9 March 2013, church of St Augustine, Kilburn.
Russian texts (transliterated) and English translations included
BENE ARTE SIGCD900 [61.27]

With this disc Tenebrae becomes the latest ensemble to launch its own label, Bene Arte. It appears that they’ve followed the example of Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort (Winged Lion) in forming an alliance with Signum Records. The new label could hardly have been launched more auspiciously since this is an outstanding recital of Russian liturgical music.
However, I do have a couple of minor disappointments. In his very interesting notes David Nice starts off by pointing out the important role that Tchaikovsky played in the late nineteenth-century revival of interest in Old Church Slavonic music among Russian composers. Since Nice discusses Tchaikovsky’s contribution in some detail it’s mildly surprising to find that the sole representation of Tchaikovsky in this programme is The Crown of Roses, sung to Geoffrey Deamer’s English translation: would not one or two movements from either of his large-scale liturgical works, the All-Night Vigil or his Liturgy of St. John Chrystosom have been more suitable? The other slight regret is that five of the eight pieces by Rachmaninov come from his All-Night Vigil. It’s great to hear the music especially when sung as well as is here the case, and it fits into the programme most logically. However, Tenebrae have already given us a fine recording of the complete work, admittedly a few years ago (review). A little less Rachmaninov, fine and important as his liturgical music is, might have allowed the programme to range even more widely, as it does on their concert programme, ‘Rachmaninov and the Russian Tradition’, which features a good number of the pieces here recorded but also some that are not on this disc.
There will be no more negative comments from me, however: I enjoyed this disc from start to finish. All the Rachmaninov pieces are very well done and although it’s invidious to single out any of the Rachmaninov performances I relished the famous Nïne otpushchayeshï with its plangent tenor solo, here very well delivered by Nicholas Madden: the well-known bottom B flat is securely and sonorously negotiated by the Tenebrae basses. Finer still, arguably, both as a composition and as a performance, is Bogoroditse Devo, which is given a splendid, heartfelt performance here. I love Blazhen muzh with its haunting, frequently recurring ‘Alleluias’, which is radiantly done by Nigel Short and his excellent singers. Vzbrannoy voyevode brings the programme to a triumphant, exuberant end. Since I expressed some mild regret thatThe Crown of Roses had been included - but only to the exclusion of any other Tchaikovsky music - I should record that the Tenebrae performance of this lovely little piece is expressive and beautifully shaped.
Other items in the programme may be less familiar but they are, without exception, well worth hearing. It will be noted that Nigel Short has selected three settings of Otche nash (the Lord’s Prayer). Apart from the Rachmaninov setting, one is by Nikolay Golovanov, previously known to me only as a somewhat volatile conductor; I wasn’t aware that he was also a composer. His setting of Otche nash is a good one though his Slava Ottsu (Yedinorodnï) is even more impressive; it’s mainly beautiful and subdued though it achieves a short, passionate climax just before the end. The setting of Otche nash that moved me most, however, is the one by Nikolay Kedrov. Kedrov, a well-regarded baritone, formed a vocal quartet and composed this for them to sing. The music has no pretensions: it’s gorgeously simple and in tone it’s gently radiant. The piece is a little gem and it’s devotedly sung by Tenebrae.
I was strongly impressed by Chesnokov’s Tebe poyem. The music seems to start in awestruck darkness and as it unfolds it’s as if a light is being gradually shone more brightly, though the light remains gentle as candlelight. The singing is superbly controlled, which it needs to be if the piece is to make its effect properly. It’s interesting to hear a piece by Viktor Kalinnikov, the sibling of Vassily Kalinnikov, whose First Symphony is admired by many devotees of Russian music. Alexander Gretchaninov’s Nïne silï nebesnïya opens the programme wonderfully. This is a beautiful piece, mostly slow and reverent but with some moments of fervour. It’s sung magnificently by Tenebrae.
In truth every one of the eighteen pieces in this programme is sung superbly. Time and again the ensemble offers exquisitely shaded and wonderfully controlled soft singing. Yet when the music requires fervour they supply it in spades. The blend and balance of the choir is beyond reproach and their Russian pronunciation sounds most convincing. This programme offers further confirmation that Tenebrae is one of the finest groups of their kind currently before the public.
The recorded sound is excellent, the natural resonance of the venue adding further lustre to the singing. The documentation is very good.
All in all, this is a most auspicious launch for Tenebrae’s new label.
John Quinn

Track listing
Alexander GRETCHANINOV (1864-1956)
Nïne silï nebesnïya [5.40]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Nïne otpushchayeshï (from All-Night Vigil) [3.33]
Nikolay GOLOVANOV (1891-1953)
Heruvimskaya pesn [4.35]
Priidite, poklonimsia (from All-Night Vigil) [2.07]
Heruvimskaya pesn (from Liturgy of St. John Chrystosom) [4.29]
Tebe poyem (from Liturgy of St. John Chrystosom) [2.21]
Nikolay GOLOVANOV Slava Ottsu (Yedinorodnï) [3.59]
Pavel CHESNOKOV (1977-1944)
Svete tihiy [2.50]
Tebe poyem [3.38]
Viktor KALINNIKOV (1870-1927)
Svete tihiy[ 2.24]
Bogoroditse Devo (from All-Night Vigil) [3.06]
Blazhen muzh (from All-Night Vigil) [5.37]
Otche nash (from Liturgy of St. John Chrystosom) [3.54]
Pavel CHESNOKOV Heruvimskaya pesn [2.25]
Nikolay GOLOVANOV Otche nash [3.29]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY(1840 -1893)
Legend (The Crown of Roses) [2.55]
Nikolay KEDROV (1871-1940)
Otche nash [2.34]
Vzbrannoy voyevode (from All-Night Vigil) [1.46]