Saturday, 15 February 2014

Tenebrae, under their director Nigel Short, are magnificent in Russian choral works on a new release from Signum Classics

Artistic Director of Tenebrae , Nigel Short, began his musical life as a chorister at Solihull Parish Church going on to study singing and piano at the Royal College of Music in London. He was a member of The Tallis Scholars, Westminster Abbey and Cathedral choirs and The King’s Consort before going on to concentrate on work as a soloist in Oratorio and Opera. He sang many roles in opera productions all over Europe and for ENO and Opera North in the UK. In 1993, Short joined the world-renowned vocal ensemble the King’s Singers. Whilst touring the world with them he began to seriously consider the possibility of starting up a new choral group which would combine a larger force of singers with movement around the performance venue as well as considerations of lighting, ambience, time and space. It would not only mean that the singers were more physically involved in the performance but also that the audiences could become caught up in the experience.

Thanks to like-minded musicians, singers and friends, Tenebrae was formed in 2001. Since then, Tenebrae have performed in many of the world’s most prestigious music festivals, in USA, Bermuda, Spain, Switzerland, France, Germany and the UK.

Nigel Short has conducted several of the world’s finest orchestras alongside Tenebrae both in concert and in recordings including the London Symphony Orchestra, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the English Chamber Orchestra and, in Baroque repertoire, the English Concert. He has also made recordings for EMI Classics, Warner Classics, Decca Records, LSO Live and Signum Records.

It is Signum Records  that have just released Russian Treasures, a recording by Tenebrae of Russian Church music by a range of composers. Tenebrae have already recorded Rachmaninov’s Vespers for Signum (SIGCD054) back in 2005 so they are well versed in such repertoire.

Bene Arte

This new disc opens with Alexander Gretchaninov’s (1864-1956) Nïne silï nebesnïya (Now the powers of Heaven) from his Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. Nikolai Danilin, conductor of the Moscow Synodal Choir may have commented, before the first performance of Rachmaninov’s Vespers, that ‘Russian basses are as rare as asparagus at Christmas, but Tenebrae have no such problems and start with some pretty impressive deep bass voices before rising up through the choir in this impressive piece.

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) features heavily on this disc and rightly so. Here we have his Nïne otpushchayeshï  (Lord, now lettest Thou) from his Vespers or, more correctly, All Night Vigil. Nicholas Madden (tenor) soars out of the choir as this lovely setting moves forward and gathers into some fine textures. This gem was a piece that Rachmaninov wanted played at his own funeral. Tenebrae seem very much inside the Russian and, in particular, Rachmaninov’s idiom with some beautiful low bass notes at the end.

The little known conductor and composer, Nikolay Golovanov (1891-1953), one time conductor of the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, wrote his Cherubic Hymn Heruvimskaya pesn as his Op.1 No.1. It is an attractive piece that has a gentle flow, beautifully realised by this choir.

More Rachmaninov comes in the form of his Priidite, poklonimsia  again from his All Night Vigil where the joyful Russian sounding voices exclaim Come let us worship with superb control and balance of these fine voices.

Rachmaninov’s Heruvimskaya pesn (Cherubic Hymn) is from his earlier Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. The sopranos open with an angelic sounding Let us who represent the Cherubim. Throughout, there is a well-balanced weaving of the voices, including those lovely basses, in this most appropriate of acoustics, the Church of St Augustine, Kilburn, London. When the choir sound out halfway through they are magnificent, as is the superb ending.

Also from Rachmaninov’s Liturgy of St John Chrysostom is a gentle, rich, powerfully written setting of Tebe poyem (We hymn Thee) with Tenebrae providing simply gorgeous vocal textures and a beautifully sensitively and meltingly emotional core.

Golovanov’s  Slava Ottsu (Yedinorodnï) (Glory to the Father (Only begotten)) has a similarly gentle, beguiling texture, with the same lovely flow as his Cherubic Hymn. Nigel Short draws lovely sounds from his choir, with a terrific central climax.

Pavel Chesnokov (1877-1944) was a choral conductor and teacher who composed prolifically for choir and is represented on this disc by three works, firstly Svete tihiy (Gladsome light) where the sopranos dominate, sounding so well in this acoustic, in this short but affecting piece, beautifully sung. The second work by Chesnokov is his Tebe poyem (We hymn Thee) from the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom where, this time, deep basses create a rich dark opening, full of Russian atmosphere before the choir unfolds gentle textures in a work that shows this composer to be a gifted choral writer.

Viktor Kalinnikov (1870-1927) was the younger brother of the better-known composer Vasily Kalinnikov (1866–1901). He, again, seems to have been prolific as a choral composer and on this disc is represented by just one work, his Svete tihiy (Gladsome Light) a pretty direct and straightforward setting, but none the less attractive for it.

Rachmaninov returns with Bogoroditse Devfo (Rejoice, O Virgin (Ave Maria)) from his All Night Vigil, a glorious, restrained, gently rising and falling setting before his Blazhen muzh (Blessed is the man) again from his All Night Vigil with a lovely opening for sopranos and tenors before the whole choir join with a lovely blend of voices, so finely paced and balanced – a wonderful performance of this, the most extended piece on this disc.

The beautifully written Otche nash (Our Father) from Rachmaninov’s Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, where the composer uses typical Russian chant, beautifully and gently overlaying the voices in a performance that could not be bettered.

The third and final work by Chesnokov is his Heruvimskaya pesn (Cherubic Hymn) a gentle piece tending to favour the upper voices. Golovanov’s Otche nash (Our Father) brings the richness of the whole choir to great effect, a kind of restrained strength, gloriously done.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) has just one work performed here, a curious choice, his Legend (The Crown of Roses) from his Sixteen Songs for Children Op.54 sung in the English adaptation for unaccompanied choir that he made for a performance in New York. It comes as something of a surprise after the atmospheric textures of the preceding works but is finely sung by this choir.

Nikolay Kedrov (1871-1940), formerly an operatic baritone, went on to compose liturgical music including the piece performed here, Otche nash (Our Father), a work that shows how simplicity can be very effective with his gentle, richly textured setting. A lovely work.

To end this recording we have Rachmaninov’s Vzbrannoy voyevode (To Thee, O Victorious Leader) again from his All Night Vigil, a joyous conclusion, wonderfully sung.

Nigel Short has selected works that make a fine contrast for this terrific disc. 

The recording is excellent and there are full texts and English translations, as well as excellent notes by David Nice. All in all, a most recommendable disc.

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