O Magnum Mysterium
This compilation of unaccompanied choral music is a tribute to Robert Shaw, one of the world’s great choir trainers. He quickly established that reputation back in the 1940s, when Toscanini chose the Robert Shaw Chorale for major choral recordings with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Later, over two decades as music director of the Atlanta Symphony, Shaw was diverted more towards the orchestral repertory, his choral recordings then usually involving the orchestra, too.
After retiring from that post in 1988 he once again found time for unaccompanied choral music, establishing in 1989 a summer festival of choral concerts and workshops at Quercy in south-central France, using a choir of students from American universities chosen by competitive audition. Between then and 1994 he made a series of recordings for Telarc with that festival choir. They provide most of the items here, atmospherically recorded in St Pierre at Gramat.
The four opening items on the disc, the Tallis and Victoria motets, were recorded in that first year, 1989, with the intention of including them with similar repertory on a full disc. In the event, they now appear on disc for the first time, immaculate performances from a relatively large choir, which demonstrate the consistent refinement of matching and balance characteristic of Shaw’s choral work.
The Poulenc and Rachmaninov items also date from 1989, the movement from the Rachmaninov Vespers demonstrating the fervour that Shaw could draw from his singers. The two American hymns and one spiritual item are from the 1992 Festival, with Shaw’s own arrangements exploiting the sort of elaborate choral effects he relished in other music. The last and longest item on the disc, the Gorecki motet, recorded in 1994, brings a performance which concentratedly sustains a very slow speed and extremes of pianissimo, that are both rapt and dreamlike.
The Schubert part-song and the Lauridsen motet, recorded with Shaw’s chamber singers back in the United States, readily match the rest in refinement and beauty of sound – particularly the Lauridsen. It is a fine piece by a composer, born in 1943, who spices a traditional idiom with clashing intervals in a way that Purcell would have enjoyed. At under an hour the compilation might have been more generous, but that is a tiny criticism to set against the outstanding quality of singing and recording,'