Tenebrae: Russian Treasures
Like buses, CD releases often come in batches. No sooner had the sound of Conspirare’s low basses stopped reverberating after their outstanding ‘The Sacred Spirit of Russia’ (Harmonia Mundi, 3/14) than Tenebrae’s have set the choral foundation trembling with their latest disc – ‘Russian Treasures’, treading the same Russian Orthodox choral ground.
Their 2006 recording of Rachmaninov’s Vespers (9/05) established Tenebrae as the go-to British choir for this repertoire, and ‘Russian Treasures’ only reinforces that position. Favourites from Rachmaninov’s Liturgy of St John Chrysostom and All-Night Vigil are balanced by less familiar treasures from Golovanov, Chesnokov and – most deft of emotional string-pullers – Grechaninov, whose constant ‘hunt for prettiness’ here finds its quarry every time.
Nigel Short lets the Znamenny chant that underpins so much of this music breathe freely, phrasing with improvisatory freshness and sense of discovery. Rather than static, monumental, this repertoire here becomes something altogether more intimate. Golovanov’s Glory to the Father and Grechaninov’s Now the powers of Heaven are rarely less than hushed but it’s a hush that seethes and teems with energy, while Rachmaninov’s much-loved Ave Maria – so often rigid with awe – is slight and unassumingly lovely.
If there is a quibble here, though, it’s a disparity of tone and character through Short’s choir. The basses are pure St Petersburg – resonant, dark, enveloping – while the sopranos are more St Peter’s College, Oxbridge. Texturally it leads to a superb blend, bladed treble edge cutting down to woody bass-line, but stylistically (and linguistically) it feels like Russian music filtered for English choral tastes. Conspirare’s thicker, weighter voices are the more authentic fit but Tenebrae’s are perhaps the more beautiful. Whichever you choose (and I say buy both), you can’t go wrong.