Tenebrae: Symphonic Psalms and Prayers
There is a coarse and forthright authority to the composer-led first recordings of Chichester Psalms (CBS, 12/65) and Symphony of Psalms (Columbia, 11/31) which is probably irrecoverable by modern ensembles even were they minded to make the attempt. Notwithstanding the careful inflections of the BBC SO winds and neat timbral blending of voices with instruments, Nigel Short’s direction of the Stravinsky is plain and cool rather than hieratic. In Zemlinsky’s riper setting of Psalm 23, it’s Vladimir Jurowski (LPO Live, 11/17) who gets under the skin of the orchestration (the trumpet fanfare at two before fig 2 apparently ignored by Short), even if the choral lines of Tenebrae are inevitably better defined in BBC’s Maida Vale Studios than the London Philharmonic Choir in the Royal Festival Hall.
Where the studio production comes into its own is the close-miking of David Allsopp and BBC SO harpist Manon Morris for the central panel of the Chichester Psalms. It’s good to hear Bernstein’s original design of the solo for a countertenor being respected for once. Allsopp makes much more of the words than most trebles, and there is an arresting immediacy to both performance and recording: try the vertigo-inducing violins at the outset of the third movement.
However, both Tenebrae and Short sound much more at home in the acoustic of St Augustine’s, Kilburn, for a remarkably assured account of Friede auf Erden. Like much of Schoenberg’s work, it demands to be performed as if it were Brahms, neither by minimising the physical and technical challenges nor being overfaced by them. The parallel-third harmonies at ‘In wie mancher heil’gen Nacht’ are as remotely beautiful as they are hard to achieve, breathing ‘the air of other planets’ as ethereally as the Second String Quartet, or indeed Holst’s ‘Neptune’. As Webern exclaimed back in 1923, ever anxious to please his father-confessor, ‘What a sound!’