Symphonic Psalms and Prayers
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Symphony of Psalms [21:28]
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Friede auf Erden, op 13 [10:30]
Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Chichester Psalms [18:36]
Alexander ZEMLINSKY (1871-1942)
Psalm 23, Op 14 [10:53]
David Allsopp (countertenor)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Nigel Short
rec 2016/17, BBC Maida Vale Studios, London; St Augustine’s Church, Kilburn, London (Friede auf Erden)
Texts & English translations included
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD492 [60:28]
This is in so many respects an excellent disc that I’m sorry to report one quite significant reservation concerning two of the items here recorded. To my ears the Stravinsky and Bernstein pieces have been recorded too closely. This may not be a problem for all listeners and I shall comment a little more as I consider each of the pieces.
The very opening of the Symphony of Psalms fairly leaps out of the loudspeakers. The tart chords and woodwind writing are designed to get the attention, of course, but this feels to be too much in the listener’s face. Just to check, I compared Sir Simon Rattle’s version, recorded live by EMI in the Philharmonie, Berlin in 2007 (review). That recording is probably cut at a lower level but even so there’s more space round the sound and the listener gets a more satisfactory concert hall perspective yet the music still makes its impact. However, allowing for the very obvious studio balance of the newcomer, Nigel Short’s performance is an impressive one. The acerbic instrumental writing registers clearly and so too do the choral parts. (The sound may be too close for my taste but singers and players are well balanced against each other.) The second movement is imposing, especially when the climax is reached; here it’s very powerful. The slow ritual outer sections of the final movement, ‘Alleluia. Laudate Dominium’) are very well done while the faster central section has a satisfying bite to it. Putting aside any reservations about the recording, this is a fine account of Stravinsky’s great work.
A completely different recording location was used for Friede auf Erden. The more generous and resonant acoustic of St Augustine’s Church, Kilburn suits Schoenberg’s intense a cappella choral piece in a way that the drier Maida Vale studio would not have done. Though the acoustic is more resonant engineer Mike Hatch achieves excellent clarity in this piece and I venture to suggest that little would have been lost – and, potentially, quite a bit gained – if this church had been used to record all the pieces. In this setting of Conrad Ferdinand Meyer’s poem Schoenberg pushes the envelope of tonality to its limits. Yet even as he does so I can still hear traces of the late choral pieces of Brahms (“Brahms, the progressive” as Schoenberg dubbed him). That influence is most marked, to my ears, in the music to which Schoenberg sets Meyer’s third stanza. Elsewhere, the music is jagged and trenchant at times (stanza 2). In the final stanza Short and his singers deliver the music with great urgency. This is highly challenging music but it holds no fears for these accomplished singers. A terrific performance.
We’re back to the close recording, though, for Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. I admire the strong drive which Nigel Short achieves in the first of the three movements. David Allsopp is a fine soloist in the central movement but I’m afraid he sounds as if he’s singing a few feet away, so the magic is lost. That’s just as true when the choir enters; greater distance would have lent enchantment. On the other hand, the choir’s delivery of the abrupt writing at “Why do the nations” is tremendously incisive – as are the contributions of the percussionists. The final movement is famous for its wonderfully flowing tune in 10/4 time. That’s really well done here but what caught my ear particularly was the very end of the movement. We began the third movement with an ardent passage for strings, itself derived from the fist movement. At the end, in an inspired touch, Bernstein reprises this material but has it sung very softly by the choir. If I’ve ever heard it sung better and more compellingly than is here the case then my memory is seriously at fault.
Though the Zemlinsky was recorded, like the Stravinsky and Bernstein, in the Maida Vale venue I wasn’t troubled by a close balance. I can only conclude that in order to record satisfactorily the rather larger forces, especially orchestral forces, a less close balance was sought. The Zemlinsky is probably the least familiar piece on the programme – I only know it through Riccardo Chailly’s 1987 Decca recording. The music opens and closes in an attractive pastoral vein. In the middle of the setting the writing is much more chromatic and, to be honest, a bit over-complex. However, it’s a piece that’s well worth hearing and I think it’s beneficial that in Tenebrae we have a relatively small choir so that there’s good clarity in the choral parts.
This is a most interesting programme, superbly performed, though the recorded sound may not be to all tastes. However, it may well be that other listeners will get better results on their equipment. The booklet includes a thoughtful essay by Greg Murray