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 Recording of the Week  Russian Choral Music from Tenebrae

Twenty seconds into the opening track of Tenebrae’s new choral album ‘Russian Treasures’ and I was hooked. The small British-based professional choir bring stunning beauty to this exquisite and immensely powerful music.

Nigel Short conducting Tenebrae
Nigel Short conducting Tenebrae

Singing is of course strongly associated with most Christian liturgies, but that of the Eastern Orthodox is particularly noteworthy as not only are no instruments used, but nothing is simply ‘spoken’. Everything therefore (apart from sermons and such) is either chanted or sung, by the clergy or readers, the whole congregation or (for music such as that contained on this disc) the choir.

It is therefore not surprising that dating back to the sixteenth century, a wealth of choral music evolved and emerged right up until 1917 when the Bolshevik Revolution brought a swift halt to the composition of religious music.

Tenebrae’s disc focuses on music from the very end of the period, mixing movements from Rachmaninov’s two well-known masterpieces, the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (1910) and the All-Night Vigil (Vespers) (1915) with settings by composers like Pavel Chesnokov and Nikolay Golovanov (the latter of whom became perhaps more well known as a conductor).

There are a number of first-recordings on this disc, some of which were collected by conductor Nigel Short himself when he was travelling through Russia in the early 1990s. Hearing the native choirs singing must have had a notable effect on him, and he sought out old music shops looking for original manuscripts of choral music by both renowned and obscure composers.

Since the choir’s inception, Russian music has therefore always been a feature of Tenebrae’s concert performances and recordings, and having worked with Russian language coaches for many years they have no problem getting round the challenges of pronunciation and appropriate stresses. Similar recordings I’ve heard by Russian choirs I have tended to find more intense than this, and generally more bass-heavy (Russian basses are legendary for their cavernous deep sound), but Tenebrae’s basses certainly have no problem with the notes (descending to low B flats on a number of occasions) and their control at these depths at quiet dynamics is impressive.

And the fact that they don’t sound especially like a Russian choir I don’t see as a negative at all. What they bring to this music is their own refined passion, combined with precision, perfect balance and intonation. The upper voices have a purity and luminance, while the blended sound is smooth but never dull.

For me, the Rachmaninov is great, but it is the other things – the first recordings – which are the real finds here, and I find it hugely exciting to be reminded like this of the wealth of terrific repertoire still sitting in libraries and attics or on dusty shelves, waiting to be re-discovered and brought to a wider audience.

One other thing to mention is that although this is the choir’s 20th album, it is their first on their own, new label – Bene Arte (no prizes for spotting what they’ve done there!). And a really great start for a new label it is too.

Do have a listen to the sound samples below. I hope, like me, you’ll find them quite enchanting.

CONCERT - Finally, if you live in, or near, London then you have the fabulous opportunity to hear Tenebrae performing this programme live at the lovely St James's Church, Spanish Place, Marylebone on January 30th 2014. Full details on the choir's website here.

Russian Treasures: Tenebrae

Tenebrae, Nigel Short

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC