Tour, new CDs signal Robert Shaw's finale with Atlanta Symphony. Chorus shines on disc and in performance

In 21 years, Robert Shaw has transformed the Atlanta Symphony from a glorified community ensemble to an accomplished regional orchestra with a $12 million-a-year budget. He arrived in Atlanta in 1967 a musical celebrity, not just for his Robert Shaw Chorale, but for all the choral preparation he had done for Arturo Toscanini's NBC Symphony concerts and operas. Mr. Shaw, not surprisingly, has become an institution in his adoptive hometown, both for his remarkable orchestra-building and for the establishment of the Atlanta Symphony Chorus.

To mark his retirement (this summer he becomes music director emeritus when he passes his baton to Joel Levi), he brought his orchestra and remarkable chorus to New York for two concerts recently, and then took the orchestra on its first European tour.

Ten years ago, a new recording company named Telarc Records signed the Atlanta and Shaw to a contract. The recordings caused a sensation in audiophile circles, and the Atlanta Symphony gained a national reputation. What began as primarily a set of orchestral recordings has been transformed into an orchestra-with-chorus series. Why? Because clearly Shaw is at his best with a chorus, and the Atlanta Symphony Chorus is - on the basis of the recordings as well as the New York performances - one of the finest in the country.

Carnegie and Avery Fisher Hall audiences heard one evening each of Atlanta musicmaking: an all-Brahms program for the former locale, Stravinsky and Beethoven's Ninth in the latter. In both programs, a commitment, a vibrancy of communication, emerged from Shaw's musicmaking when the chorus was on stage. And, it must be said, the orchestra did not prove itself as yet technically accomplished enough to stand comparison to the national and international ensembles heard regularly here.

The Brahms choral selections - ``Schicksalslied'' (``Song of Destiny''), ``N"anie,'' ``Gesang der Parzen'' (``Song of the Fates''), and the ``Alto Rhapsody,'' all rarely heard - were stirring, and one did not focus as strongly on the thin, nasal strings, the whining winds, and the tubby brass coming from the orchestra. When Brahms's First Symphony was the fare, those flaws began to intrude. Shaw's way with the score was crisp, unfussy, rather peppy. Nevertheless, one had to constantly fight from mentally perusing a catalog of good-to-remarkable performances by any number of other ensembles heard previously on the same stage.

The same has to be said for the Fisher Hall concert. Stravinsky's ``Symphony of Psalms'' was given a thoughtful elegiac account, rather too subdued and lethargic for these ears, but sincere and heartfelt. And then came Beethoven's Ninth: A perfectly honorable, though not particularly profound, reading of the first three movements found the orchestra giving all it could; when the chorus finally came in - albeit at a roar all out of proportion to the piece as shaped to that point by Shaw - the performance took on a certain vitality.

And the same must be said of the recordings, with one imposing exception. The earlier, purely orchestral recordings caused a sonic sensation because digital recording techniques reproduced the sounds of a bass drum with startling impact. But the sound was rather boxy, and the playing just ordinary. So, for example, if it's a performance of Berlioz's ``Les nuits d''et'e'' you're after, you'll want to look elsewhere than Telarc CD-80084, both because the orchestral playing is not all that evocative and because Elly Ameling's increasingly fragile soprano simply cannot encompass the shades of meaning and nuances of the songs. The filler for this scant 50-minute CD, Faur'e's ``Pell'eas et M'elisande'' music, is given a prosaic reading.

Even the all-choral releases are not uniformly remarkable. An album entitled ``Choral Masterpieces'' (CD-80119) features 15 selections from the great choral works of the Western musical literature, mostly sung in a murkily enunciated English. The recording of Stravinsky's ``Symphony of Psalms'' and Poulenc's ``Gloria'' (CD-80105) is disappointingly flat as well, and at barely 46 minutes it is no bargain in this digital era.

The pairing of the Faur'e and Durufl'e ``Requiems'' (CD-80135) is, however, particularly generous (over 74 minutes) and features the best recorded account of the little-known but deeply appealing Durufl'e. The Faur'e is not entirely competitive; the soloists (Judith Blegen and James Morris) are both miscast.

And Shaw's reading of Hindemith's stirring oratorio ``When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd'' (CD-80132) is as rousing, haunting, and engrossing as this neglected masterwork can receive. Shaw commissioned the work in 1946, while he led the Collegiate Chorale, and here it is done the fullest justice - vindication of the conductor's deep-rooted belief in the piece and its universal message. (Too bad he couldn't have taken this work to Europe instead of the Stravinsky/Beethoven program cited above.) Baritone William Stone is a dedicated soloist, but mezzo Jan DeGaetani is vocally defeated by her part. The chorus sings with control and fervor, and Telarc's somewhat imperfect sound does not interfere with the performance.

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