It is not really so long ago that music written for
the Russian Orthodox church was available mainly in rather exotic recordings
from beyond the Iron Curtain. But it has now become much more commonplace
for British choirs to sing and record Rachmaninov's 'All Night Vigil'
and we have at last accepted that there is an alternative lighter more
flexible way of singing this music. The Holst Singers have rather enterprisingly
recorded Gretchaninov's 'All Night Vigil' (an important precursor of
Rachmaninov's) as well as a CD of selections from various composers.
The effect has been to make these recordings sound
very much like historical documents. All the recordings are taken from
discs that were originally issued by the Bulgarian label Balkanton and
despite their varied provenance, all the performances share a commonality
of vocal and performance style. The choirs all sing with substantial
vibrato. The women, in particular, rarely sound sweet but have a moving
vibrancy that transcends even the occasional problem with pitch. The
men, when singing quietly, have a wonderful hushed, raptness along with
that very distinctive timbre. This is helped enormously by the fantastic
low basses which gives so much of this music a distinctive sound. Not
all of it is great music, but as performed here with style and commitment
it works very well. All these performers were secure in their knowledge
about what was fit and right for the task. These are performances that
are truly authentic. As the effects of the fall of the Iron Curtain
and Western cultural domination gradually forces homogeneity on all
European musics, recordings such as these will be seen as important
The recordings have been rather variously transferred
to CD. Many of them have quite a wide dynamic range and I think more
work could have been done in this area. Two or three times I had to
reach for my volume button (both to turn it up and to turn it down).
I was surprised at how much 20th century
music there was on this CD. Such was the powerful conservatism of the
Russian Orthodox church, that they frowned upon the slightest deviation
from accepted practice. Witness the enormous fuss around Tchaikovsky’s
‘Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom’, which sounds very traditional to us.
The result is a corpus of work, often based on folksongs and existing
chants, that rarely lets in 20th century musical ideas.
The CD opens with the Bulgarian National Choir "Svetoslav
Obretonov" conducted by Georgi Rovev in a dramatic performance of Tchaikovsky's
'Song of The Angels'. They sound like quite a big choir, recorded in
a rather generous acoustic and, like most of the choirs on this disc,
they have a generous, but not unpleasant vibrato. They get the lion’s
share of the tracks, but looking through the Gramophone, they seem to
have been quite active in recording. They follow this with Hristov's
'Velika Ekteniya' (The Great Ekteniya). Dobri Hristov (or Khristov)
was an important figure in 20th century Bulgarian music.
He studied in Prague and became director of the Sofia School of Music.
His music was often folk-based and was very popular. He wrote two liturgies,
in 1925 and 1934. The 'Velika Ekteniya' has a substantial role for a
cantor (quite decently sung), with the choir answering with the phrase
'Gospodi Pomilui', harmonised in a variety of ways.
The next item comes as a shock, as Boris Christoff's
voice blazes out in alarmingly close proximity. Whilst Christoff is
uncomfortably close, the choir (The Choir of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
under Angel Popkonstaninov) are a bit distant. Their contribution in
this piece, 'Blazhen Mouzh' (Blessed is Man) by Lyubimov, is restricted
to some beautifully hushed Alleluias. This piece also illustrates another
problem with this recording. There are no notes and the pieces are listed
by composer's surname only. My research has failed to illuminate who
Lyubimov (christian name probably Nikolai) was. There were two or three
such composers on this disc, who remain simply names without much in
the way of dates or background.
The next two items, from Rachmaninov's 'All Night Vigil'
are again from the Bulgarian National Choir. Their performance is surprisingly
light and flexible but there seems to be far too much acoustic and the
choir sound distant. This may be realistic in terms of a real liturgical
performance of this work, but after the previous track this sounds terribly
The following two items return to Boris Christoff and
The Choir of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. All Christoff's items on the
disc are recorded with the same faulty balance as 'Blazhen Mouzh'. But
that said, Christoff is in excellent voice and sings wonderfully. In
Hristov's 'Hvalite Imy Gospone' (Praise ye the Name of the Lord) the
choir do have moments of unsteadiness. In Gretchaninov's 'Verouyo' (Creed)
there is discreet accompaniment. In this, as in much of his later religious
music, Gretchaninov used instruments, so debarring his music from church
use. In much of his sacred music Gretchaninov used harmonised folk melodies,
which initially caused some controversy. In the Gretchaninov Creed,
Christoff is in particularly good voice.
Manolov's 'Edinorodnii Sin', sung by Yoan Koukouzel
- The Angleoglasny Ensemble conducted by Dmitur Dimitrov, comes as a
welcome shaft of contrapuntal relief from the homophonic nature of much
of this music. Emanuil Manolov was a Moscow-trained Bulgarian composer
and he composed the first Bulgarian opera.
Zinoviev's 'Tebe Poem' ("We Hymn Thee, We Bless Thee'),
sung by Christoff and The Choir of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, is a
rather slow turgid piece, not helped by the choir's tuning problems.
This is followed by the second Gretchaninov piece on
the record and here the basses of the Bulgarian National Choir exhibit
some spectacular low notes.
Hristov's 'Priidite Pokonisya' (Come let us worship)
is the only other one sung by Yoan Koukouzel - The Angleoglasny Ensemble.
This one has such a curious acoustic, sounding as though recorded at
the bottom of a well, that it is rather difficult to appreciate the
The final Hristov piece, 'Vo Tsartvii Tvoem' (In Thy
Kingdom) and the last Gretchaninov piece, 'Dostonino Est' (Meet it is
in truth to bless thee) are both sung by the Bulgarian National Choir.
The Hristov piece, a very romantic number, has a lovely soprano solo.
The Gretchaninov piece is another with instrumental accompaniment. In
the long opening solo, the instruments are rather faint when compared
to the solo voice but balance is better when the choir comes in. Their
last contribution is Kedrov's 'Otche Nash' (The Lord's Prayer), a rather
slow homophonic piece, but one which the choir sings with lovely tone.
The final item on the CD of course is sung by Boris
Christoff. This may well be one of the earliest pieces on the disc.
Dimitri Bortnyansky came to prominence under Catherine the Great and
her son Paul I. Much of his sacred music dates from earlier in his career;
later on he devoted his time to improving standards and standardising
musical practice in the Russian Orthodox church. It is a joyous if unsubtle
piece and ends with the pealing of bells - sounding very much like a
dummy run for the descent into Niebelheim.
This CD contains items by a number of composers who
are under-represented in the catalogue. Though the sound quality is
rather variable, the performances are fine in their idiomatic way. It
is highly recommendable as a window into another, vanishing world.