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Akathistos Fragments
Jouissance (Deborah Kayser - soprano; Jerzy Kozlowski - bass-baritone; Anne Norman – shakuhachi; Peter Neville – percussion; Nick Tsiavos – double bass/artistic director)
rec. 8-9 July 2004, Iwaki Auditorium, Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Southbank Centre, Melbourne
ABC CLASSICS ABC 476 8064 [78.59]

The Akathistos hymn, or Office, is the most famous hymn to the Virgin Mary; the Virgin was taken as the protector of Constantinople in the 6th century. In the Orthodox liturgy the whole Office is recited on the Saturday of the fifth week of Lent, when it is divided into four parts between which psalms and canticles may be sung. Parts of the Office are also distributed over the first four Saturdays of Lent. The hymn is thought to have been composed in the 6th century but its authorship is in doubt.

The hymn embodies the Byzantine Rite’s veneration for the Virgin as the second Eve and as the Thotokos or God-Bearer. But it also has a historic context, as on three separate occasions in the 7th century the Virgin was regarded as delivering Constantinople from siege and the hymn sung as thanksgiving to the Virgin.

This disc is not strictly a performance of the Akathistos. The Australian group Jouissance, to quote the CD booklet, "was formed to explore the dialogues between ancient chant and contemporary culture. The musicians share a fascination with the mysticism, sensuality and rapture found in the works of the Byzantine Rite. The engagement with this music is informed by the diverse nature of the performers’ experience".

The ensemble features a soprano (Deborah Kayser) and bass-baritone (Jerzy Kozlowski), shakuhachi (Anne Norman), percussion (Peter Neville) and double bass (Nick Tsiavos, who is also artistic director of the group).

The basic sound-world of Byzantine Chant consists of the melody line and a drone bass. This underlies much of the music on this disc, but here the melody line might be taken by soprano, bass-baritone, shakuhachi or even tuned percussion. The bass-drone is played on double-bass or sung by the bass-baritone, though the bass line is often more varied than that found in original Byzantine Chant. Surrounding this basic structure is often a halo of percussion, adding complexity and interest. Some movements move further away from the basic premise, one or two utilise bells and tune percussion extensively; the general feeling is of slow melismatic rapture, though some movements are faster.

Soprano Deborah Kayser is a talented interpreter of Byzantine Chant; often the tracks sound as if someone like Soeur Marie Kerouz (the Maronite nun who has recorded much orthodox chant) had wandered into a studio and started jamming with a group of world musicians.

The music embodies a fascinating interaction between traditional chant and modern sensibilities. The chant itself has come from a variety of sources as the performers have taken both written and aural traditions into account. More problematical is the information provided in the CD booklet where each track is given a short description. Two examples will suffice:-

"The bells initiate the dialogue between melodic shape and silence, define the space and act as an ‘entrance’ into this work"

"The postlude uses the metaphor of ‘East’ and ‘West’ to explore the dialectic between entropy, resignation and a restless energy that surrounds the end of an idea"

Some people may find this interesting and illuminating, though personally I found the text unhelpful and preferred to ignore the booklet and just listen.

Anyone who loves chant should be interested in this disc, though it should come with a health warning for purists.

Robert Hugill




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