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CD Review

Evocation of the Spirit

Robert Shaw Festival Singers/Robert Shaw
Telarc CD-80406
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When, in the 60s, I first heard that Robert Shaw had shut down his Chorale, I reacted similarly to, I imagine, hearing that my best friend had been hit by a bus. Fortunately, my friend has yet to meet the business end of a local, but the Chorale and (for me, most important) the possibility of more superb recordings have indeed gone for good. I've been waiting like Penelope, and about as long, for certain reissues. In fact, I joined the BMG Music Club simply because they were the only source for the Chorale's account of Britten's Ceremony of Carols, Rejoice in the Lamb, and the Festival Te Deum. Shaw has covered some of his earlier recordings with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, but, with one or two rare exceptions, the covers haven't lived up to the originals. His Telarc Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms / Poulenc Gloria lacks the bite and verve of the earlier RCA outing.

The appearance of the Robert Shaw Festival Singers raised my hopes with some wonderful CDs: Brahms choral music, the Rachmaninoff Vespers, Amazing Grace, Songs of Angels, and Poulenc choral music. Shaw's version of Poulenc took a unusual view of the music, making it a lot bigger than what you normally hear. For me, it worked. Nevertheless, even though the Festival Singers yielded to the Chorale in clarity of ensemble and rhythmic precision, so did practically every other choral ensemble, and the characteristic Shaw choral sound was there in spades. I now waited for them to get better.

I've heard every work except for the Górecki before this CD. Furthermore, I've heard each one sung much better. This CD disappoints big-time. That Shaw allowed its release surprises me a bit.

The Górecki Totus Tuus uses a diatonic idiom, not that far from his 3 Pieces in Olden Style. The familiar repetition of the same sequence of events, which you get in the 3rd Symphony, is also there. The big trick with this technique is knowing when to stop. Since I've not heard this work before, someone can tell me the answer to this: does the piece die halfway through and its death rattle linger like bagpipes decompressing? It certainly does here. Any forward momentum, crucial to a work like this (slow tempo, little variety, no harmonic complication, much repetition), sinks out of sight. I can't tell if it's Górecki's fault or Shaw's. This is the group at its technical best - beautiful intonation, superb control at low dynamic - so I wonder.

The Pärt Magnificat, a continuous setting, rings changes on an f-minor chord for its entire duration. It's therefore quite important that the choir keep its pitch. The Singers noticeably flatten as the piece goes on. Also, Shaw drags it out for 9 minutes (most performances come in somewhere around 6 1/2). Worse, it sounds spliced. One section has little to do with another. The Festival Singers lay around like a heavy meal. On the other hand, the Dale Warland Singers (December Stillness, American Choral Catalog ACC 121) not only lick the basics, unlike the Shaw, they also make the most of the textural variety Pärt has written into the piece.

I've written about Martin's Mass before. It poses one of the great 20th-century challenges to a choir's stamina, intonation, and clarity of texture. To hear how the piece should go, listen to the performance on Cathedral Classics by the Dale Warland Singers (American Choral Catalog ACC120).

I love the Barber Adagio for Strings (and its original quartet version). In its orchestral form, as far as I'm concerned, the lusher the better. I want those climaxes to vibrate through me. Consequently, the possibility of hearing the fabulous Shaw choral sound in this piece actually prompted me to buy the album, even though I don't care for the Adagio in its (to me) hastily put-on Agnus Dei confirmation suit. Now singing adagio is one of the hardest things a choir can do: not only is it difficult to keep the piece moving, but intonation generally suffers. The Festival Singers are mired in goo. The piece goes nowhere. They sound tired, unable to manage a decent forte, let alone a fortissimo, and the sopranos come in a consistent quarter-tone flat. Muddy and heavy-footed, it doesn't even sound like a Shaw choir.

Shaw recorded Friede auf Erden in the 60s for RCA on the LP of the Chorale's tour of Russia (On Tour, RCA LSC-2676). In a series of great albums, this one stands out - works by Mozart, Ives, Schoenberg, Ravel, and Shaw-Parker arrangements, all in performances I haven't heard bettered in 30 years. Schoenberg made two versions of the work: the original a cappella one and a second accompanied by woodwinds (to help the choir keep pitch). I've heard it both ways (against any expectation, I've even sung it both ways), and I must say I prefer the accompanied version. It may have begun in necessity, but the extra parts are in themselves gorgeous. Gregg Smith for me did the best a cappella version in the multi-volume CBS edition of the complete Schoenberg. Still, the Shaw is not only more passionate, but it shows the greater understanding of the intellectual content of the piece. I have no idea what happened to Shaw in the intervening years, but this new a cappella version shows neither passion nor intelligence. The ringing "credo" theme from the men's voices at the work's climax (Schoenberg alluding to Beethoven's Missa Solemnis) gets absolutely lost somewhere in the general choral fuzz.

No one has done more than Shaw to raise the standards of choral singing in this country. With this CD, he becomes his own victim. I doubt we would have noticed without the model he provided.

Copyright © 1996, Steve Schwartz