Tuesday, February 9, 2010

In review--Russian Icons

Gloriae Dei Cantores
Unto Ages of Ages
Sacred Choral Music of Sviridov, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky
Paraclete Press/Harmonia Mundi

I have never stepped foot in a Russian Orthodox Church, but in 2005 I attended a concert given by a Greek Orthodox choir at a Greek Orthodox Church in Seattle’s Montlake neighborhood. It felt like stepping into a surreal universe, icons and stories appearing on gold painted ceilings and walls, and I can’t even begin to describe the men’s choir which sang chants rich in chromatic scales and otherworldly harmonies. Five years later I recall the experience as if it happened yesterday.

The Massachusetts-based mixed choir Gloriae Dei Cantores (Orleans, MA) performs sacred works composed for the Russian Orthodox Church by Russian composers Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) and Georgy Sviridov (1915-1998). I’m of course familiar with the repertoires of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, but not of the 20th century composer Sviridov (whose pieces incorporate influences of the other two Russian composers). I knew about Rachmaninoff’s All Night Vigil, but not about Tchaikovsky’s Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, op. 41, but the liner notes cite the composer’s religious inclinations and the passion he felt in the walls of the Russian Orthodox Church.

If you’re like me and this is new territory for you to explore, will quote the liner notes, “One can enter a Russian Orthodox Church and hear the numerous chants and choral works central to the worship sung in an almost unbroken wave of sound. An evocative visual iconographic element of the saints and important religious figures surround the space in layers ascending towards the ceiling. The aural experience is carried by the choirs in the upper balconies, helping to create their vision of a temporary heaven on earth…”

This recording provides listeners with excerpts from the well-known liturgies All-Night Vigil and St. John Chrysostom and newer 20th century work, Ineffable Mystery by Sviridov. This entire album of heavenly music runs just under one hour, but it’s an hour of music that will leave your mind and spirit in suspension.

The album opens with four excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s sacred work. The Cherubic Hymn grabbed my attention. It starts out on a solemn vein with layered monody vocals. The rich basses ground the piece, while the soprano voices pierce the veils of heaven. Soprano voice rise and male voices respond, and dip, ascend and descend. During the last minute of the piece, the vocalists break out into rich and passionate polyphony as they chant the alleluias.

The Lord’s Prayer features a monophonic chant with quiet passages weaving in and out of full-throttle passionate outbursts. Soprano alleluias receive a response from the male voices and this section rivals Handel’s "Alleluia Chorus" from Messiah with its rich polyphony of cascading vocals.

While I’m mostly familiar with Rachmaninoff’s fiery virtuosic Piano Concertos, 2 and 3, his more solemn works, such as this All-Night Vigil emphasizes the composer’s range. While Tchaikovsky’s pieces blended monophonic with polyphonic vocals, he did not include any solo parts for his vocalists. Rachmaninoff on the other hand, includes short solos for alto and tenor. Come Let Us Worship features soloists singing over a continuous choral drone. The harmonies and melodies provide movement with some overarching melodic passages—something I would expect from the composer of piano concertos 2 and 3. The pieces range from just over 2 minutes to nearly 7 minutes long, but move by quickly. On the piece mentioned above, the sopranos lift their voices to heaven and the bass and baritones gently anchor the piece to the earth.

Glory to God in the Highest feels tranquil and hopeful with Russian folkloric music qualities especially in the melodies sung by the women. Some of these staccato phrases remind me of motifs in the composer’s piano concertos—a passionate crescendo ends the piece, without a musical resolution. But what I will say, is that this set of sacred chants resonates with listeners long after the disk stops spinning.

The last set of chants by 20th century Russian composer Sviridov garners influences from the other two Russian composers, but the passages are chromatic and solos were composed for tenor, soprano and bass-baritone voices. My favorite of the excerpts, Glory and Alleluia brings in some splendid key changes during the soprano solo/aria ¾ of the way through the piece. Then the album ends with Ineffable Mystery, a powerful chant in its own right.

I spent some quality time with this recording because this is my first exploration of Russian Orthodox Church chants. I first listened to the disk after coming home from running errands. I needed to make that adjustment between the outside world and my inner sanctum and this recording took me there in a heartbeat. The second time I listened to the disk was when I was getting ready for bed. I fell asleep through part of the music, only because it helped me unwind and relax my tense muscles. The third time I listened to the disk took place when I awoke and went through my morning meditation and journaling. And what I found each time is that music resonates with us like food. It lingers in our cells, we digest it and grow healthier or not, from the musical vibration.

If I had to choose my musical diet, this recording would act as the main course. I realize that many readers of this blog wish to delve into religious text or listen to sacred music. However, if you seek to escape the mundane world, no matter your religious belief, Unto Ages of Ages, will take you for a journey, you won’t soon forget. You might listen to it on your head phones on a bus or on a stereo in your home, but you will feel swept away to a domed church with iconographic images staring down at you. You won’t be the same from the experience.

Paraclete Press

Distributed by Harmonia Mundi

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