Review: Symphony Psalms & Prayers / Tenebrae / BBC Symphony Orchestra

Symphonic Psalms and Prayers from Tenebrae and the BBC Symphony Orchestra is a beautifully curated selection of choral works by Berstein, Stravinsky and Zemlinsky. The crowning glory is undoubtedly a recording of Schoenberg work Friede auf Erden.

It’s also a stunningly produced recording capturing two recording locations – Maida Vale studios and St Augustine’s Church in Kilburn – but four distinct sound worlds.

Stravinsky’s three movement ‘symphony’ for voices and orchestra has a dry theatrical pit sound. The padded intimacy surrounding the chamber orchestra gives this performance an irresistible sense of urgency and menace.

Tenebrae‘s smooth texture punctuated by cut glass consonants make Friede auf Erden the real highpoint of the album. Schoenberg’s constantly shifting harmonies are spun into increasingly intense harmonic climaxes. Tenebrae’s exquisite performance is bright sunshine cutting through a deep blue sky. I absolutely adore this. Revelatory.

The production choices made for Berstein’s Chichester Psalms provide this album with another fresh perspective, giving the BBC Symphony Orchestra far greater depth than I’ve heard before, emphasising the vast musical (almost Copland-esque) canvas in Bernstein’s score. This expansive sound is contrasted deftly with a dry precise articulation in the second movement. And at the beginning of the third movement, a string sound shaped by audiophiles for audiophiles, demonstrating breathtaking dynamic contrasts, and gripping ensemble playing.

I was less keen on the Zemlinksy, although musically it’s inclusion at the end of the album did work. In terms of material I’m less convinced about some of the twee-sounding moments in his setting of Psalm 23 compared to say the comparatively more sophisticated musical orthodoxy Bernstein brings to his score in the Chichester Psalms.

Sure, I know that sounds a bit pompous. All I really mean is, I think Bernstein’s twee-ness is more convincing in the context of the Chichester Psalms than Zemlinsky’s.

But it’s a very minor point. One wonders why I’ve even bothered to mention it because to my mind Tenebrae and the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Symphonic Psalms is the most brilliant thing about 2018 so far. And whilst I don’t really wash with awards and understand less how they’re decided on, I think I’d like to see this pick one up for Signum.

Discover Tenebrae’s Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Berstein album on Idagio
Symphonic Psalms with Tenebrae and the BBC Symphony Orchestra is also available on Spotify

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