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Robert Shaw is the choral GOAT

Mahler’s Eighth Symphony is a beast but Shaw’s chorus is a beauty.

Robert Shaw
Robert Shaw

I’ve spent the better part of a week listening to recordings with Robert Shaw conducting choral masterpieces. While Shaw has not retained his classical music household name, his recordings are definitely definitive when it comes to the chorus. 


In some of the more critically acclaimed recordings of these masterpieces, it sounds as if the chorus was an afterthought. Herbert von Karajan was the worst offender. The chorus was primary when Shaw conducted a choral piece.


Shaw has something of a San Diego connection. He served as the music director of the San Diego Symphony for four years starting in 1953. He also made guest appearances with the San Diego Symphony in the early 1990s. I dimly recall sneaking into one of his rehearsals with the symphony at Brown Chapel on the campus of Point Loma Nazarene University. I’m not sure why the rehearsal was held there because the acoustics in Brown Chapel are God-awful—perhaps even Satanic.


Shaw first came to the nation’s attention in 1948 when his chorus performed Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Shaw immediately became Toscanni’s favorite chorus master. The 1951 performance of Verdi’s Requiem with Toscanini and The Robert Shaw Chorale is a prime example of their collaboration.


Video:

Verdi: Requiem




From 1956 to 1967, Shaw was the assistant conductor to the legendary George Szell at The Cleveland Orchestra. During his tenure, he took over The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus and turned the volunteer group into a powerhouse. The evidence of their excellence is in a 1967 performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis with Szell conducting the chorus that Shaw prepared for him.


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Video:

Beethoven: Missa Solemnis




Shaw took on the mantle of music director for The Atlanta Symphony from 1967 to 1988. He recorded extensively on the Telarc label. While his Verdi Requiem doesn’t compare to Toscanini and his Missa Solemnis doesn’t exceed Szell’s, there are several fantastic choral recordings available with Shaw and Atlanta.


The first one that comes to mind is Johannes Brahms’s German Requiem. I know this piece is supposed to belong to venerable Germanic geniuses such as Szell or Otto Klemperer but the chorus is so damn good with Shaw. Also, soprano Arleen Auger is out of this world on Shaw’s recording.


There is also an exquisite recording of requiems by Gabriel Faure and Maurice Duruflé. The Faure Requiem is one of the most performed choral pieces of all time and Shaw’s is special because, again, the chorus is perfect. 


There are two recordings that we might not identify as music that Shaw would perform. One is Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 and the other is Vespers by Sergei Rachmaninoff. If you’ve never heard either of them, Shaw’s performances are the best place to start. Russian recordings of the Vespers can be raw and abrasive but Shaw’s choral sound is always smooth. Mahler’s Eighth Symphony is a beast but Shaw’s chorus is a beauty.



Video:

Rachmaninoff: Vespers



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Robert Shaw
Robert Shaw

I’ve spent the better part of a week listening to recordings with Robert Shaw conducting choral masterpieces. While Shaw has not retained his classical music household name, his recordings are definitely definitive when it comes to the chorus. 


In some of the more critically acclaimed recordings of these masterpieces, it sounds as if the chorus was an afterthought. Herbert von Karajan was the worst offender. The chorus was primary when Shaw conducted a choral piece.


Shaw has something of a San Diego connection. He served as the music director of the San Diego Symphony for four years starting in 1953. He also made guest appearances with the San Diego Symphony in the early 1990s. I dimly recall sneaking into one of his rehearsals with the symphony at Brown Chapel on the campus of Point Loma Nazarene University. I’m not sure why the rehearsal was held there because the acoustics in Brown Chapel are God-awful—perhaps even Satanic.


Shaw first came to the nation’s attention in 1948 when his chorus performed Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Shaw immediately became Toscanni’s favorite chorus master. The 1951 performance of Verdi’s Requiem with Toscanini and The Robert Shaw Chorale is a prime example of their collaboration.


Video:

Verdi: Requiem




From 1956 to 1967, Shaw was the assistant conductor to the legendary George Szell at The Cleveland Orchestra. During his tenure, he took over The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus and turned the volunteer group into a powerhouse. The evidence of their excellence is in a 1967 performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis with Szell conducting the chorus that Shaw prepared for him.


Sponsored
Sponsored
Video:

Beethoven: Missa Solemnis




Shaw took on the mantle of music director for The Atlanta Symphony from 1967 to 1988. He recorded extensively on the Telarc label. While his Verdi Requiem doesn’t compare to Toscanini and his Missa Solemnis doesn’t exceed Szell’s, there are several fantastic choral recordings available with Shaw and Atlanta.


The first one that comes to mind is Johannes Brahms’s German Requiem. I know this piece is supposed to belong to venerable Germanic geniuses such as Szell or Otto Klemperer but the chorus is so damn good with Shaw. Also, soprano Arleen Auger is out of this world on Shaw’s recording.


There is also an exquisite recording of requiems by Gabriel Faure and Maurice Duruflé. The Faure Requiem is one of the most performed choral pieces of all time and Shaw’s is special because, again, the chorus is perfect. 


There are two recordings that we might not identify as music that Shaw would perform. One is Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 and the other is Vespers by Sergei Rachmaninoff. If you’ve never heard either of them, Shaw’s performances are the best place to start. Russian recordings of the Vespers can be raw and abrasive but Shaw’s choral sound is always smooth. Mahler’s Eighth Symphony is a beast but Shaw’s chorus is a beauty.



Video:

Rachmaninoff: Vespers



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