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Symphonic Psalms and Prayers: Bernstein, Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Zemlinsky

David Allsopp (countertenor); Tenebrae; BBC Symphony Orchestra/Nigel Short (Signum)

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

Symphonic Psalms and Prayers
Bernstein: Chichester Psalms; Schoenberg: Friede auf Erden; Stravinsky: Symphony of Psalms; Zemlinsky: Psalm 23
David Allsopp (countertenor); Tenebrae; BBC Symphony Orchestra/Nigel Short
Signum Classics SIGCD 492

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Taut, tensile, snappy: Nigel Short’s account of the opening movement in Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms is all of these things. Fielding just 27 voices, it is also unusually successful at integrating the choir, Tenebrae, with the players of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The singers’ punchy, hieratic style of delivery makes them sound almost like a second choir of woodwind instruments, in addition to the healthy phalanx already assembled by Stravinsky. Desolation and darkness haunt the carefully calibrated counterpoint of the middle movement under Short’s direction. He again secures exceptional textural transparency in the uplifting finale, the singers’ eschewal of vibrato and tight ensemble clarifying the harmonic combinations in Stravinsky’s music. The closing paragraph, with timpani, is perhaps a touch deliberate, but achieves a gentle luminosity.

Where Stravinsky leans to solemn ritual in his psalm-setting, Bernstein initially elects for exuberance. Nigel Short, though, sensibly girdles the sparkling high spirits of the first movement in the Chichester Psalms with a firm insistence on clean articulation of rhythms, and on not treating the vocal writing like a shouting match.

Countertenor David Allsopp displays beguiling poise and tonal purity in ‘The Lord is my shepherd’, while the Tenebrae singers contribute a precision-tooled ‘raging nations’ section to that movement. Short’s flowing tempo in the finale dilutes the danger of sentimentality, and the hushed coda is particularly captivating.

Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden and Zemlinsky’s Psalm 23, both strongly performed, are significant bonuses. If you like the coupling of the main works – the only one in the current catalogue – these Tenebrae performances will reward repeated listening.

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Terry Blain