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Shaw's Enduring Legacy

29 JAN 08 VIVIEN SCHWEITZER

Anyone curious to discover why Robert Shaw (who died in 1999 at 82) was frequently referred to as America's greatest choral conductor would do well to listen to the wonderful performance of Rachmaninoff's haunting Vespers.

Rachmaninoff completed the Vespers, his last liturgical composition, in just two weeks in 1915. The work is a remarkable contrast to his thunderously romantic piano works, such as the tumultuous Piano Concerto No. 3.

This Telarc release features an ethereal performance by the Robert Shaw Festival Singers, recorded in 1989 in Quercy, France, the site of one of Shaw's famous choral training workshops. The Festival Singers demonstrate the trademark precision and crystalline clarity of musicians trained by Shaw, with exquisitely shaded phrasing and dynamics that range from delicate pianissimos to full-blooded rapture.

Most importantly, the Festival Singers capture the mystical beauty and purity of these deeply moving Vespers with unerring grace. Rachmaninoff's favorite section was the fifth: the Prayer of St. Simeon. It's hard for me to choose a favorite among so many gems, but the fifth is certainly a top contender. The clear, powerful tenor of Karl Dent penetrates through the chorus with gripping urgency, while the basses sing a descending scale that reaches seemingly impenetrable depths.