Short, Nigel

Performance DetailsRelease DetailsReviews
Soprano: Carys Lane
Mezzo-Soprano: Frances Bourne
Tenor: Paul Badley
Bass: Matthew Brook

Choir: Tenebrae
Orchestra: Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Conductor: Nigel Short

Date:  April 3, 2003
Venue: St John’s Smith Square, London, UK

Label: Warner Classics
Cat No.: 2564 60191-2
Released: May 3, 2004
I’ve heard Tenebrae before, both live and on disc, and have been very impressed with them. Their CD, Mother and Child was, in fact, my Recording of the year in 2003. However, this CD was my first opportunity to hear them in “standard repertory” so I approached it with no little interest and anticipation.

Let me first deal with the two “fillers”. The Haydn motet gets the programme off to a suitably vigorous start. The dramatic singing and playing (especially the exciting timpanist) presages a lot of what’s to come in the Mozart Requiem. However, as is also the case in the main work here the reflective music that comes in the middle and is reprised at the very end is most sensitively done. I’m afraid I can’t be anywhere near as enthusiastic about the Mozart Ave verum Corpus. On the evidence of what I’ve heard to date Nigel Short is an extremely thoughtful musician. However, in my humble opinion he gets this piece quite wrong, choosing a somnolent tempo. Whether this is done to emphasise the work’s beauty or to impart a sense of reverence I can’t say but the slow speed just drains the life out of the music. By coincidence the same piece cropped up on another disc to which I’ve been listening recently. This is by Lichfield Cathedral Chamber Choir. Their conductor chooses a much more natural and flowing tempo which I find wholly convincing. In Lichfield the work plays for 2’59″ against the 4’19″ required here.

However, people will buy this CD for the Requiem and this performance has much to commend it. The opening Introit gives a good indication of the style of the performance as a whole. The choir’s attack has splendid bite, articulation is superb (it needs to be in view of the fleet tempi adopted for certain movements!) and every strand of the choral texture is crystal clear. The same goes for the orchestra, which plays with splendid definition.

Short quite clearly (and rightly, in my view) conceives the work as a “big” piece and is not afraid to bring out the vivid drama of Mozart’s writing. In this approach he is close to John Eliot Gardiner’s superb 1986 recording (though, unlike Gardiner, Short’s orchestra plays on modern instruments.) The Kyrie is splendidly articulated by the choir, though I did wonder if the chosen speed wasn’t a little too brisk. Eliot Gardiner is just a fraction steadier, requiring 16 seconds longer for the Kyrie. However he seems to me to impart just a trifle more weight to the music and, of course, the same is true at the very end of the work where Süssmayr reprises the music of the first movement.

Short’s Dies Irae has plenty of fire and punch. There are also some imaginative and telling little touches. When the choir first sings the words “Quantus tremor est futurus” (track 4, 0’50″) he introduces a touch of legato, as some other conductors do. However, a little later there’s an effect I’ve never heard before. When the basses sing the same words, dramatically in quavers, Short notices the sforzando marking in the orchestra and gets his basses to kick off that and make a quick diminuendo and crescendo. I don’t know if that’s marked in the full score; it’s not in my Bärenreiter vocal score but I think it’s a splendid idea.

I’m not quite so persuaded by his approach to the Rex tremendae. Once again Eliot Gardiner is fractionally steadier. With him the descending dotted semiquavers in the strings have real drive and weight. Short makes them sound clipped and much less significant. However, his Confutatis is absolutely splendid. The dramatic phrases for men’s voices are enhanced by some really ringing tenor tone. The contrasting phrases for the high voices sound marvellously ethereal.

Both the Lacrymosa and the Offertorium are splendidly paced and the excellent choir observe every dynamic contrast with absolute fidelity. I thought that the Hostias was perhaps a touch too relaxed. John Eliot Gardiner chooses an almost identical tempo but seems to inject just a bit more urgency and vigour into the way his choir point the notes. Short is much more successful in the Sanctus where he conveys the grandeur of the music very well. The opening phrases are underpinned by some truly splendid thwacks from the timpani. The Osanna is really vital and, of course, Short has just the singers who not only cope with a speed that would defeat many choirs but who also make sense of the music at this pace. Suffice to say that the sweep and drama are maintained in the Agnus Dei and the Communio.

So far I’ve not mentioned the soloists. Although it’s not made clear in the documentation I think I’m right in saying that all four are members of Tenebrae; certainly they’re listed among the choir on the Mother and Child CD. For the most part they sing well, though to my ears the tenor doesn’t quite sound sufficiently open and free. However, one has only to listen to Eliot Gardiner’s team to hear another dimension. His soloists sing beyond the notes and colour the words in a way that Short’s team do not. Of course Eliot Gardiner had a “big name” quartet at his disposal: Barbara Bonney, Anne Sophie Von Otter, Hans Peter Blochwitz and Willard White. However, since this Tenebrae disc is offered at full price comparisons are in order. Short’s soloists are thoroughly musical and do not let the side down at all. I think it’s right to point out to purchasers that there may be better alternatives.

That said, there is still a great deal going for this new version of the Requiem even in a fiercely competitive field. The choral singing and orchestral playing is superbly dramatic and serves Mozart very well. Though I may take issue with a few points of Nigel Short’s interpretation there is a great deal else about it that I admire very much indeed. I have some reservations about the soloists but other listeners may well not share these and it’s probably the case that in these cash-conscious days the recording probably couldn’t have been made with a quartet of “big names” – with fees to match! Taken as a whole I’d describe the performance as convinced and convincing. There’s no indication in the documentation and no extraneous noise to betray the presence of an audience but since all the recordings were made on a single day I just wonder if these are live performances – they certainly have the electricity of performance conditions.

The recorded sound is first rate as is the note by Richard Wigmore. There’s a great deal to commend this performance and if you’re happy with the solo team (a quick sample of the Tuba Mirum, track 5, will establish that for you) then you can buy with confidence. This is a dramatic and challenging performance to which I shall certainly return.
John Quinn, MusicWeb International [September 4, 2004]