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

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The small choir Tenebrae have brought the precise English choral style into new realms, here applying it to 20th century sacred works of considerable variety. Several of them, most of all Arnold Schoenberg's a cappella Friede auf Erden, pose technical challenges, and hearing those dispatched with aplomb is reason enough to listen here. The program is broad rather than focused: with pieces in Latin, German, and Hebrew, it's a look at some divergent ways in which composers responded to biblical texts. As ever, Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms is the daring inclusion. The work was commissioned for a choral festival in Britain in the 1960s, and it surprised audiences with its mix of Jewish content (the psalms are in Hebrew), jazzy Broadway rhythms, and sensuously gorgeous tunes. The English certainly have a claim on this work, and Tenebrae, though you might not expect them to, delineate the rhythms with sharpness and vigor. You might find the piece a jolt on the heels of Friede auf Erden and Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, but that is what Tenebrae are after. All the pieces except for the Schoenberg were recorded in a BBC studio, creating a somewhat boxy effect in music like Zemlinsky's Psalm 23, Op. 14, that is usually big and public, whether intended for cathedral or symphony hall. Again, this is a bit unfamiliar, but it fits with Tenebrae's aim, which is to examine the texts and these composers' personal responses to them. Counter to type but recommended.

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