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CD Review

Appear & Inspire

Robert Shaw Festival Singers/Robert Shaw
Telarc CD-80408
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Will the real Robert Shaw please stand up?

Whatever happened to Robert Shaw? At one time, he reigned over American choral singing. No one else came close to the richness and clarity of the Shaw sound. He has influenced enormously almost every North American choral conductor of note who came after him. Choral fans await eagerly the release of his complete recordings with the Robert Shaw Chorale. Off-hand, I can't think of an LP anything less than superb through the 1960s. However, his series of CDs for Telarc has been, to put it kindly, inconsistent. Wonderful recordings brush up against embarrassments, and this CD dwells among the latter.

This time, I've tried hard to come up with the changes in Shaw as a musician. First, he's become far less picky about pitch. Nothing sets your teeth on edge, but nothing's really completely in tune either. Second, you could always understand words sung by the Shaw Chorale. In fact, Shaw seemed as in love with words as with notes. He seemed to consider choral music communication, rather than just beautiful sounds. His choirs sang with a kind of urgency – a concern that you understood what they sang about. The sound has become more lush at the expense of diction. The singers seem to have just taken in a mouthful of hot porridge. Third, when diction goes, it usually – as in this case – indicates that rhythm is as loose as a spent rubber band. Finally, Shaw seems to have forgotten how to produce any tempo faster than andante. This alone sinks just about every piece on the program.

One certainly can't fault the repertoire – modern choral classics, mostly a cappella, with an emphasis on the great French composers and those they influenced. Britten, of course, is in a class by himself. "Hymn to St. Cecilia" comes from, to me, his most beautiful period – the early 1940s, when he returned from America to wartime England. I believe he wrote Ceremony of Carols on the boat back. At any rate, the "Hymn" is slightly over ten minutes of pure gorgeous, and it's almost sadistically difficult, though not as bad as his 30s choral masterpiece A Boy was Born. It runs to several movements (three or four, depending on whether you count a very short interlude as a separate movement). The first begins with a soft entry, high in the tenor, on the word "in" – something almost guaranteed to produce a strangled break, rather than the effortless floating-in that Britten seems to have imagined. The chordal progressions are at once unusual and, once Britten shows them to you, bone-simple. Britten differs from us in that he thought of them and we couldn't have. Shaw's tenors do fine, even if the subsequent entry by the women wobbles briefly. All things considered, Shaw begins well, and my hopes rose. But the rhythm becomes lax, the words (by W. H. Auden) largely unintelligible, and the counterpoint pretty much a lost cause. The scherzo movement suffers from ragged rhythm. The final movement – a kind of massive choral passacaglia, with soloists imitating various instruments – throws the entire performance into the pit, and we can blame Shaw for all of it. It's not just that the music moves way too slowly, it moves like Jabba the Hut or The Blob. It oozes. Singers' attack smushes all over the place, and they seem not to know from consonants. But the problem which generates all the others, at least partly, is Shaw's narcoleptic tempo. You could use this performance to accompany the Slough of Despond. Try instead Gardiner's reading (DGG 453 433-2).

Debussy wrote only one a cappella choral work – the Trois chansons, a canonical work (if such things exist) of the great choral tradition. The first number, moving mostly in block chords, seems made for the lush sounds of the Shaw Festival Singers. Again, I quibble with the diction, but I can live with it. The second chanson, which evokes the distant music of street musicians coming in through the window, should dance (the words evoke the sound of a little drum – "tabourin"), but here it sounds pooped. Again, the sharpness of attack and articulation of notes, which contribute to choral dancing, simply aren't there. Everything sounds muffled, stupefied, and – again – way too slow. It's dance recollected in senility. The final piece, with snatches of fugue, is a mess for all the reasons mentioned so far. Shaw and his singers fail to light a fire.

Like Debussy, Ravel published only one a cappella choral work – his Trois chansons. The Shaw Chorale released a classic performance – never bettered – on their 1960s RCA LP of their Russian tour. RCA really ought to transfer this album to CD: beautif performances of Mozart, Ives, Ravel, Schoenberg, and folk-song arrangements by Shaw and composer Alice Parker. I listen to the Shaw Festival Singers and want to cry. The direct comparison of the Ravel shows how low Shaw has fallen. Ravel's masterful little triptych tolerates even less slop than the Debussy. Performer's diction is stale, and so on and so forth. But the lack of any urgency behind the performance – any reason to listen at all, any indication that Shaw considers this music exciting or even interesting – bothers me the most. The middle number – "Trois beaux oiseaux du Paradis" – may be the single most beautiful thing Ravel ever wrote. When I heard it for the first time, on Shaw's old RCA LP, its beauty literally moved me to tears. I'm normally a dry-eyed son of a bitch. Shaw now takes what I would call the "Guy Lombardo approach," removing the bittersweet sting of it in favor of globs of honey. What a yawn.

Poulenc once said to Ned Rorem: "Robert Shaw is not only my favorite choral conductor but my favorite musician of all time. His rendition of my music corresponds to the very action of the blood through my body!" Shaw recorded Poulenc's Gloria for RCA in the 1960s, and it swung. The première recording, led by George Prêtre, emphasized the monumentality of the work; Shaw's, the high spirits and the lyricism that burrowed into your heart. Shaw's memorial concert for Poulenc with the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus remains one of the greatest musical experiences of my life, after more than thirty years. But it's been thirty years. Still, Poulenc's choral music usually moves in blocks of chords, and this piece in particular requires the rich sound Shaw still gets from a chorus. Clarity matters less here, although it does matter. Again, the lack of practical commitment to the music bothers me more. The performance is not terrible, but it is way too laid-back. It's not a question of dynamic or tempo, but whether there's any impulse behind the line of the music.

The Dutch composer Henk Badings has provided three choral songs firmly in the idiom of French Impressionism. Shaw does best in the last of these. In fact, this beats out all the others as Single Best Track on the Disc. Something, perhaps electric shock, gets Shaw's blood racing, and the choir turns in a delightful performance. But this is, again, one of three. The other two suffer the same indifference that's plagued most every other piece on the program. The Badings work would benefit greatly from a greater infusion of vulgar drama in the performance. These are highly imaginative and emotional works, furthermore, from a master of the craft who has set some very deeply-felt poetry. The best I can say for Shaw's version is that, as far as I can tell, it is the only one available.

I've never considered myself a fan of Dominick Argento's music. It's always struck me as Too Nice, and this setting of Catullus doesn't really change my mind. On the other hand, if Shaw can turn the Debussy and Ravel into the musical nutritional equivalent of fiberboard, I should fairly hold off a judgment.

The sound is Telarc's usual expert, but I don't care.

Copyright © 1998, Steve Schwartz