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Review by William Kempster

MORE HONORABLE THAN THE CHERUBIM Vladimir Gorbik, cond; Mikhail Davydov (bbar)1; PaTRAM Institute Male Ch CHANDOS 5287 (SACD: 71:36 Text and Translation)

CHESNOKOV To the Most Holy Sovereign Lady, op. 43: No. 1, 1Let Us Pray to the Most Holy Theotokos; No. 4, Theotokos, We Shall Never Cease Proclaiming; No. 5, Beneath Thy Compassion; No. 6, O Fervent Intercessor. Russian Orthodox Service, op. 40: No. 2, 1Revealing to Thee the Pre-Eternal Counsel. DEGTIAREV At Thy Deathless Dormition. DINEV It Is Truly Meet. GRECHANINOV Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom No. 2, op. 29: Let Us Hasten with Fervour. F. A. IVANOV Do Not Lament Me, O Mother. B. LEDKOVSKY We Have No Other Help. RACHMANINOFF The Theotokos, Who Is Ever-Vigilant in Prayer. TRUBACHEV Troparion to the “Donskoi” Ikon of the Theotokos. Oh, How Sweet Is Thy Voice. TSAR FEDOR ALEKSEYEVICH (arr. Fr. Matfei) It Is Truly Meet. SHVEDOV Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom No. 1: It Is Truly Meet. UVAROV The Angel Cried Out. BULGARIAN CHANT (arr. Popov-Platonov) O Thou Joy of All the Sorrowful. PUTEVOI CHANT (arr. A. Ledkovsky) Exaposteilarion for the “Kursk Root” Ikon of the Theotokos

The extraordinary sacred choral repertory of pre-revolutionary Russia is still generally not well known in the West, although the famous cycles of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff are reasonably often-performed exceptions. It is likely, therefore, that many if not most of the composers represented on this new disc will be unknown to many prospective buyers. Do not be perturbed, however, as this is a magnificent recording that needs to be in the collection of every true music lover.

From the very beginning, this recording is clearly something very, very special, but by the end of the glorious third track—the second piece in Gretchaninov’s Divine Liturgy—I was totally hooked. The ecstatic, powerfully impassioned performance heard of this truly wonderful piece that is found here really has to be heard to be believed. Not since Valery Polyansky’s landmark recording of the Rachmaninoff Vespers with the USSR Ministry of Culture Chamber Choir (a recording that exists in many different iterations, most of which do not preserve its technical excellence) have I heard Russian choral singing that even begins to compare with this new recording, which is a triumph for all concerned, not least the stunning PaTRAM Institute Male Choir (which draws singers from both Russia and North America), and its conductor, Vladimir Gorbik.

No other choral tradition I know of features the ultra-low bass lines to be found in this repertory, and PaTRAM can boast no fewer than nine of these virtuoso specialists, some of whom can go down to double low D (D1), which is a full octave (or perhaps even more) lower than most basses. There are many recordings where these low bass notes can be heard—particularly at key cadential moments—but on this new disc their visibility transcends all of those other recordings, and the ultra-low bass lines are rendered melodically and texturally fundamental to the sound world created by the music. The effect is staggering, and almost every track is enhanced by the possibilities which this sort of range expansion offers an all-male choral ensemble.

The “octavists” discussed in the previous paragraph would not, however, in and of themselves, make PaTRAM a great choir if it were not the case that the rest of the ensemble was also of the highest quality. That is most certainly the case here, and the singing is simply glorious on every track. Tuning is very fine, diction impeccable, and the vocal tone employed is always at the service of the music: gentle and supple in the soft music, and yet full-throated, powerful, and impassioned in the music that demands this. Vibrato is never excessive and never allowed to compromise tuning, as is so often the case with even the finest choirs. There are a few moments when the high tenors seem to be a little stressed, but the emotional impact of their singing is always compelling, and totally convincing. The choir’s dynamic range is magnificent (as was that of the above-mentioned USSR Ministry of Culture Chamber Choir, but that was a mixed-voice ensemble), and the speed with which the group can transition from ppp to fff is truly stunning.

It would seem almost churlish to single out any one piece on this fabulous new disc from Chandos—as I already have—as this is a recording where every single track is an emotional experience in itself. Suffice it to say that there is plenty of variety here, and the recording can be enjoyed as a recital; as a series of mini-recitals; or via individual tracks from time to time. The recording is very fine indeed, placing the voices in a full and reverberant acoustic space which still allows fine detail to be appreciated. My only regret in listening to this recording was the fact that I am temporarily unable to play discs in multichannel, but I am sure that the experience would be all the more glorious in surround sound.

This is a magnificent new disc that will certainly be among my records of the year. William Kempster

 

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