Symphonic Psalms & Prayers – Nigel Short & Tenebrae, with BBC Symphony Orchestra [Signum]

4 of 5 stars

Symphony of Psalms
Friede auf Erden, Op.13 [a cappella version]
Chichester Psalms
Psalm 23, Op.14

David Allsopp (countertenor) [Bernstein]


BBC Symphony Orchestra
Nigel Short

Recorded in London – the Schoenberg at St Augustine’s Church, Kilburn on July 2016, the rest at BBC Maida Vale Studios during July 2016 and July 2017

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: February 2018
Duration: 60 minutes



While this intriguing Judaeo-Christian programme may not fit too well on the shelves of old-style, repertoire-led collectors, it lives up to Tenebrae’s stated core values of “passion and precision”.

Symphony of Psalms, which opens the anthology, seems less concerned with the first of those attributes, at least initially. The expert choir (featuring the female voices which Stravinsky viewed as second best) is relatively modest in size, the instrumental cohort placed further back than you might be used to. Nor is there any attempt to disguise the relatively confined acoustic. That said, everything is wonderfully clean and sharp-etched so that you never feel short-changed. And the timeless, implacable quality of the invention is not the only aspect highlighted as the music proceeds. The second movement brings not only flawless intonation from the woodwinds of the BBC Symphony Orchestra but eruptive, even muscular passion from the singers. The Psalm 150 setting works wonderfully too, finally combining glinting clarity with the trance-like rapture which can get lost in squeaky-clean performances.

Next up is the Schoenberg, notoriously difficult to bring off, especially when performed as here without the instrumental doublings for strings and wind the composer added in 1911 on the advice of Franz Schreker. The writing has probably never sounded less strained, nor more perfectly in tune. By 1923 Schoenberg was describing this final work in his original tonal style as “an illusion for mixed choir, an illusion, as I know today, having believed … when I composed it, that this pure harmony among human beings was conceivable.”

Tricky in a different way, Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms is marginally less successful if only because the balance sometimes seems to mute the strings unduly (this is not after all the reduced, economy version Tenebrae use in concert). Sentimentality is banished but so is some of the music’s escapist charm. Well to the fore is the countertenor of David Allsopp, a former Tenebrae singer. Some might have preferred a less forthright boy treble whatever the threat of sugariness. The final movement’s big tune is taken rather swiftly so as to make a bigger contrast with the psalmist’s subdued farewell.

Ascetic rigour is even less of the essence in Zemlinsky’s Psalm 23, a mildly chromatic pastoral dating from 1910 in which Michael Oliver detected “an ambience half-way between Hollywood and the Three Choirs Festival.” Taking its cue from one of the cutesier passages in the second movement of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony the invention is never hugely memorable but certainly makes for grateful listening, the scoring brightening at the very end in a tinkling recreation of the shepherd’s biblical soundworld of pipe, harp and timbrel.

Signum’s detailed booklet offers full texts and translations and a list of participants including the language coaches. Sadly it is impossible for older readers to determine who sings or plays where, the symbols used being ludicrously small. Recommended even so.

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