Review by Daniel Morrison
MORE HONORABLE THAN THE CHERUBIM • Vladimir Gorbik, cond; Mikhail Davydov (bbar)1; PaTRAM Institute Male Ch • CHANDOS 5287 (SACD: 71:36 )
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
This is the fourth release of Russian Orthodox liturgical music from the Patriarch Tikhon Russian-American Musical Institute (PaTRAM) that I have reviewed. One of them, a selection of works by Pavel Grigorievich Chesnokov (1877–1944) was on my Want List for 2019. Two others, a selection of hymns to the Virgin Mary by 19 different Russian composers and a setting in English of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom by the contemporary American composer Kurt Sander, were strong Want List contenders, as is the present release. The music on all of these recordings is of sublime beauty and expressivity, and one does not have to be a religious person, as I am not, to be profoundly moved and entranced by it. As on the Chesnokov disc, the selections on this new recording are performed by the PaTRAM Institute Male Choir, in conformity with the male-only tradition of Orthodox liturgical music. (The performances on the other two discs are by the PaTRAM Institute Singers, a mixed choir.) But in the interim since the earlier release was recorded in 2016, the Male Choir has been significantly enlarged, from 42 to 55 members. Most significant are the increases at the lower end of the spectrum, with the bass section expanded from seven to 10 and the octavist (basso profundo) contingent from five to nine. The increased weight at the bottom end confers an extra degree of power, depth, and gravity by comparison with the earlier release, and a dark splendor to the sound. The finely tuned balances of this ensemble ensure, however, that the strengthened lower voices do not overwhelm the others but rather expand the overall sonority.
Like one of the previous releases, the present one consists of hymns to the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos, or Mother of God, by a variety of composers, in this case 11 of them (one a Bulgarian, Petar Dinev), plus two anonymous selections. (For biographical information on these composers, and on the theological and liturgical significance of the hymns, I refer the reader to James Altena’s review in this issue.) The texts of these works consist predominantly of praise of the Theotokos and pleas for her intercession to relieve human suffering. The earliest of the composers is Tsar Feodor Alekseevich (Feodor II), the half-brother and predecessor of Peter the Great, whose brief reign lasted from 1676 to 1682. The monarch, however, is apparently responsible only for the melody of Dostoino est’ (It Is Truly Meet), which is presented here in a beautiful homophonic arrangement by Archimandrite Matfei (Mormyl’) of the famed Trinity-St. Sergiy Monastery, in Sergiev Posad, northeast of Moscow. Next in chronological order comes Stepan Anikievich Degtiarev (1766–1813), who like a good many Russian composers of that era was of serf origin, but he received Italian training, the influence of which is evident in the elaborate polyphony of his sacred concerto Na bezsmertnoe Tvoe Uspenie (At Thy Deathless Dormition).
Most of the remaining composers are Russians who were active at the end of the 19th century and in the first half of the 20th. Of these, Chesnokov receives the most attention, and it is gratifying to have more of this composer’s wonderful creations available on recordings. (At the time of its release, the PaTRAM Chesnokov disc was the only available recording devoted solely or predominantly to this composer.) He is represented here by five selections, four of which come from his cycle Ko Presviatoi Vladychitse (To the Most Holy Sovereign Lady), op. 43, dating from about 1913. These pieces make full use of the resources of the chorus, and in their beauty of sound, harmonic color, and extraordinary depth of feeling they are captivating even to a non-religious listener such as myself. Two other composers, Aleksandr Grechaninov and, of course, Sergei Rachmaninoff, are well known to music-lovers for their instrumental compositions. Rachmaninoff composed his sacred concerto V molitvakh neusypaiushchuiu Bogoroditsu (The Theotokos, Who Is Ever-Vigilant in Prayer) in 1891, at the age of 18, but like some of his other early compositions, it is an accomplished piece of work, influenced, as Vladimir Morosan points out in his notes for this release, by earlier composers of sacred concertos, such as Degtiarev, Dmitry Bortniansky (1751–1825), and Artemy Vedel’ (c. 1767–1808). Grechaninov’s sacred concerto “K Bogoroditse prilezhno” (Let Us Hasten with Fervor), part of his Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom No. 2, is shorter than Rachmaninoff’s but encompasses a wide variety of moods in the course of its six-minute duration, from serene contemplation to passionate desperation in its pleading for the aid of the Theotokos, and it is notable for a special beauty and opulence in its choral texture.
None of the remaining selections are less than compelling, but I will comment individually on just a few more of them. The traditional putevoi chant Svetilen ikone Bogoroditsy “Kurskoi-Korennoi” (Exaposteilarion for the “Kursk Root” Icon of the Theotokos), heard here in a beautiful arrangement by Alexander Ledkovsky (1944–2004), is notable for its serene exaltation. (Putevoi chant, literally “chant of the way,” is a type of chant that originated in the 16th century as an outgrowth of the older znamenny chant.) The father of Alexander Ledkovsky, Boris Mikhailovich Ledkovsky (1894–1975), is responsible for another of the selections on the disc, the sacred concerto Ne imamy inyia pomoshchi (We Have No Other Help). Compared to some other selections offered here, it is uncomplicated in texture and harmony but is permeated by an atmosphere of otherworldly mystery, and its calm, quiet, and sonorous pleading is very moving.
The most recent composer on the disc (excluding the arranger Alexander Ledkovsky) is Sergiy Zosimovich Trubachev (1919–1995), and he is the only one other than Chesnokov to be represented by more than one composition. The annotations give his first name as Sergiy, while many other references identify him as Sergei. (Sergiy is the equivalent of Sergei in Ukrainian and Church Slavonic.) I can only speculate on the reasons he may have adopted this version of the name. He apparently was not Ukrainian, but his association late in life with the Trinity-St. Sergiy Monastery may have led him to use the Church Slavonic version. His two pieces on this disc stand somewhat apart from the others in their harmonic language, especially in his Tropar’ ikone Bogoroditsy “Donskaya” (Troparion to the “Donskoi” Ikon of the Theotokos), which seems to make more use of dissonance. In his O, sladkago Tvoego glasa (Oh, How Sweet is Thy Voice) the predominant character is, appropriately enough, sweetness.
A degree of intrigue surrounds the name of Nikolai Matveevich Uvarov (1883–1942). Available biographical information about him is very sketchy. In the first two decades of the 20th century he was a choir director and teacher of choral singing in church institutions, mostly in the city of Orenburg, in the Urals. He remained in Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution and at some undetermined point took up residence in Leningrad, where he died in 1942, during the German siege of that city. Only five choral compositions by him are known to exist, but the one on this disc, Angel vopiiashe (The Angel Cried Out) is widely sung in Orthodox churches in Russia and abroad. This hymn was originally attributed to Mussorgsky, and resemblances to that composer’s style have been detected in it. It is in any case a striking and distinctive piece.
It is difficult to imagine any way in which the performances on this disc could be improved. The choir sings with beautiful blended tone, perfect intonation, elevated expressivity, and deep conviction. The tempos established by conductor Vladimir Gorbik seem unfailingly right. The solos by Mikhail Davydov in two of the Chesnokov pieces match the tonal euphony of the choir, even though he is sometimes singing in a very high range for a bass-baritone. Like the earlier Chesnokov disc, this recording was made in a church in Saratov, a city on the Volga River in the eastern part of European Russia, but it is apparently not the same church. The acoustic predictably contributes a lot of reverberation to the sound and sometimes leads to a bit of blurring in the treble at loud dynamic levels. But the textures are otherwise clear, the vocal timbres rich and colorful, and the soundstage wide and deep. By comparison with the SACD stereo sound, the conventional CD layer of this hybrid disc reduces the spaciousness and bass presence somewhat. The CD sound is good, but the SACD is more vivid and detailed and is clearly preferable. I don’t have the equipment to evaluate the multi-channel format offered by the disc. The 42-page booklet accompanying this release provides detailed notes, with the Church Slavonic texts in Cyrillic and transliteration, plus an English translation. It is less lavish in its illustrations, however, than were the booklets of previous PaTRAM releases, which were on a different label.
To those interested in Orthodox liturgical music or a cappella choral music in general, this release deserves the highest recommendation, and I think anyone hearing it will find it difficult not to be so interested. Daniel Morrison