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Alexander Tikhonovich GRECHANINOV (1864-1956)
Passion Week, Op. 58 (1911-12)
Caroline Markham (mezzo), Paul Davidson (tenor), Bryan Taylor (baritone)
Phoenix Bach Choir, Kansas City Chorale/Charles Bruffy
rec. Church of the Blessed Sacrament, Kansas City, Kansas, USA; 26-27 March 2004
CHANDOS CHSA 5044 [74:00]

This will be one of my discs of the year, without question. Rarely have I heard a cappella singing of such quality and refinement or a recording that so perfectly complements it. That it should be music from a relatively little known Russian composer and the unknown (to me) Phoenix Bach Choir and Kansas City Chorale is all the more astonishing. No wonder the booklet photograph shows conductor and artistic director Charles Bruffy beaming at the camera – he has plenty to be pleased about. 
The setting of 13 sacred musical texts is natural territory for Grechaninov, a member of the so-called 'new Russian choral school’ that included Sergey Rachmaninov and Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov. They were all associated with the Moscow Synodal School of Church Music and its Synodal Choir.
Grechaninov left Russia after the 1917 Revolution and emigrated to the new world. His Passion Week is part of old Russia though, composed as it was in 1911-12; the work was premiered by the choir of L. S. Vasil'yev in November 1912 and apart from a St Petersburg performance in 1913 it wasn't performed in Russia until it was revived by Valeri Polyansky and the Russian State Symphonic Cappella in the 1990s.
Leading the Phoenix Bach Choir, formed in 1958, and the Kansas City Chorale, founded in 1983, is conductor Charles Bruffy. He began his musical career as a tenor soloist with Robert Shaw, that doyen of American choral music, and this training really shows in the discipline and sheer technical excellence of these two choirs.
Briefly the music of Passion Week derives from the seven days of the Eastern Orthodox Church known as 'Great and Holy Week'. The services are held twice daily and span the period from Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday through to his betrayal, trial, crucifixion and resurrection. It is an extraordinarily intense musical journey, sung in what is known as 'Church Slavonic'.
The first two hymns come from the 'Bridegroom Matins' service and focus on repentance and preparations for the Paschal Wedding Feast. From the opening of 'Behold the Bridegroom' one is immediately seduced by the wonderful unanimity and blend of these choirs. They come across with a depth and richness that is well nigh ideal for this kind of music, helped in no small measure by the Chandos recording team and the lovely natural acoustic of the Church of the Blessed sacrament, Kansas City. There is no distracting echo or reverberation to blur the crisp, focused singing and that is surely how it should be.
In ‘I see Thy bridal chamber’ the sopranos and altos create an extraordinary halo of sound above the rest of the chorus, demonstrating one of the real strengths of SACD an added dynamic range that allows the music to blossom naturally at the frequency extremes without a hint of glare or grain. There is no doubt this adds enormously to the enjoyment of the music at hand.
In the fourth hymn, 'In Thy Kingdom', Bruffy and his singers find a radiant stillness in the music that is most affecting. The men and women’s voices create a magical antiphonal 'dialogue', as if between priest and congregation. It is an extraordinarily effective device, with a spine-tingling sense of a vast cathedral space. Once again this demonstrating just one of the many aural gains that SACD offers, even in its two-channel form. And just listen to those rapt final cadences, beautifully articulated and projected. A cappella singing does not come any better than this.
The ceremony becomes more personal in the fifth hymn, 'Let my prayer go forth', with the interplay of soloists and chorus. The former are ideally placed in the sound picture and are heard rising out of the choral mix. Both groups are grave and reverential, but not overly so, and the note of supplication is struck at the close with a sustained and impossibly deep pianissimo from the men. Another display of vocal prowess from a band of singers that just seems to get better and better as the work progresses.
After the awe and wonderment of the Eucharist ('At Thy mystical supper') we move to Jesus' promise of salvation in 'The wise thief'. Here Grechaninov modulates into a fervent key with singing of great animation before ushering in the more sombre Vespers of Great and Holy Friday. 'The noble Joseph' is outwardly plain yet is a remarkable distillation of sorrow and tenderness. It is a funeral procession after all and the gently rocking basses evoke the distant tolling of a great bell. It is such a simple device and yet it is indescribably moving.
The final hymns of Passion Week reflect the promise of the resurrection. As we move from Lenten darkness to Paschal light Bruffy secures singing of great intensity from his choirs, most notably in the final hymn, 'Let all mortal flesh be silenced'. Grechaninov produces some of his most febrile choral writing here, gloriously affirmative yet ending on a sustained note of quiet exultation. 

Chandos has recorded this work before, with Polyansky and the Russian State Symphonic Cappella (CHAN 9303), and as 'authentic’ as that may sound this American offering is even more satisfying. And although the present performance clocks in at a leisurely 74 minutes as opposed to Polyansky’s rather swift 59:22 there are few longueurs to speak of. Indeed, the American account combines a recording of spectacular range and refinement with singing of the highest calibre. Add to that detailed and illuminating liner notes from Vladimir Morosan and you have a winner.

Dan Morgan




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