The music on
this CD represents repertoire not usually associated with The
Sixteen - expanded to twenty-nine singers on this occasion.
Much of it is music either written expressly for, or inspired
by, the Russian Orthodox liturgy.
The items by
Rachmaninov, for example, are taken from his two major Orthodox
liturgical works. Rejoice, O Virgin - I’ll use the English
title used in the jewel case listing - is from his wonderful
All-Night Vigil, Op. 37, while the other two pieces are
to be found in his Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom,
Op. 31. The former, a haunting and deeply expressive setting,
beautifully sung here, makes for a moving opening to this recital.
from Russian Orthodoxy come the pieces by Kalinnikov and Chesnokov.
The Kalinnikov is a setting of the text known in the Western
Christian tradition as the Nunc Dimittis. I hadn’t come across
this piece before but I liked it very much. It’s simple and
serene, with some radiant harmonies. Chesnokov was a pupil of
Taneyev and came to be regarded as one of the leading Russian
choral conductors. A prolific composer, he wrote over five hundred
pieces. His setting of the Cherubic Hymn uses the same text
as the Rachmaninov piece. Chesnokov’s concise setting is solemn
Pater Noster was originally composed in 1926, using Russian
words, but he revised it in 1949, substituting the Latin text
performed here. At the same time he revised in a similar fashion
the Ave Maria, which he’d set in Russian in 1934. Incidentally,
there is a third short religious work, Credo, composed
in 1932 and, similarly revised in a Latin version in 1949. It’s
a pity room could not have been found for that piece in this
recital as well since it only lasts for about six minutes. Of
the two that we have here I much prefer Ave Maria, which
has a lovely melodic flow and very clearly comes from the Rachmaninov
lineage of liturgical music. Pater Noster is more terse
in style; I’ve written the words “fierce chanting” in my listening
composer, John Tavener, has been greatly influenced by the music
of the Orthodox Church and, indeed, he has written quite a few
pieces specifically for the Orthodox liturgy. His Song for
Athene acquired worldwide réclame when it was sung
at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997 - when the
shuffling feet of the guardsmen as they carried the coffin out
of the church made an unforgettable quiet counterpoint to the
music. The piece was actually composed four years earlier to
a BBC commission and it was dedicated to the memory of a friend
of the composer’s, who had tragically died at a young age. It’s
a fine and moving piece and Christophers and his singers do
it very well.
Exhortation was commissioned for the Royal British Legion’s annual
Festival of Remembrance in 2003. It’s an extremely moving and
successful setting of Laurence Binyon’s well known verse, ‘They
shall not grow old’. The piece is simple and direct and makes
all the stronger an impact as a result. It’s not clear from
the accompanying notes whether Kohima is intended by
Tavener to be a companion piece, nor are we told when it was
written. However, it makes an extremely apposite pairing.
The pieces by
Arvo Pärt include De Profundis, a setting of Psalm 130.
This is scored for men’s voices accompanied by organ and percussion.
The accompanying instruments produce a most arresting, ghostly
sound at the start. The piece builds cumulatively and if I describe
the music as repetitious I don’t use the word in a pejorative
sense for it is repetitious by design and the effect is strangely
compelling. As the words of the psalm move from dark despair
to hope so the mood of Pärt’s music changes too. The performance
is very powerful. The Woman with the Alabaster Box
is unaccompanied. It’s a choral narration, in English, of
a passage from St. Matthew’s Gospel. The use of rests is an
extremely important element of the music. The idiom is modern
but it’s also archaic at the same time and at the end it resolves
satisfyingly onto a major chord. O Weisheit (‘O Wisdom’)
is a setting in German of the first of the so-called Great ‘O’
Magnificat antiphons, sung at Vespers in the days leading up
to Christmas. Given the playing time of the CD it’s a bit strange
to find just one of Pärt’s set included.
Dimittis was composed for R.R. Terry’s celebrated Westminster
Cathedral choir and was first performed in the Cathedral on
Easter Sunday 1915. It then fell into complete neglect and the
manuscript was lost. However, the composer’s daughter, Imogen,
was able to reconstruct the piece in 1974. Its neglect is, frankly,
inexplicable. It’s a lovely piece that moves from a rapt opening
via a joyful central section to an affirmative close.
pieces by James MacMillan. The Sixteen have done his music before:
they commissioned and have recorded (Coro COR16010) his O
Bone Jesu (2002), an astonishing homage to the 19-part setting
of the same text by MacMillan’s fellow Scot, Robert Carver (c
1487-1566). The two pieces included here are firmly rooted,
like O Bone Jesu, in MacMillan’s devout Catholic faith.
A Child’s Prayer was composed in 1996 in response to
the tragedy of the slaying by a deranged gunman of primary school
children in Dunblane, Scotland in March of that year. Two soprano
soloists sing the text against a background of the a cappella
choir repeatedly singing the word ‘welcome.’ Then the choir
switch to singing ecstatically the word ‘joy’ and the mood of
the music moves from keening sorrow to joy-in-sorrow. When the
choir reverts to singing ‘welcome’ in the background it is in
a less grief-stricken way than previously. It’s a daring piece
since MacMillan is completely unapologetic about displaying
in it his belief in life after death - and why should he be
apologetic? I find it immensely satisfying, both musically and
theologically, and very moving.
No less moving
is A New Song. This was commissioned to celebrate the
seventieth birthday of the commissioner’s father and in memory
of his deceased mother. The text is taken from Psalm 96 and
MacMillan not only shows once again his mastery of choral writing
but also provides a most effective gentle organ accompaniment.
It’s another enriching piece.
The music on
this disc is very demanding but The Sixteen are on fine form
and they perform all of it superbly. I suppose some might argue
that they make an English sound that isn’t quite right for the
Russian music but I don’t think that this matters in the slightest.
For me, the singing is first rate and that’s what matters. The
singing is captured in a very good recording. Full texts and
translations are provided. The notes, by Jeremy Nicholas, are
succinct and adequate.
This is a most
enjoyable and rewarding disc.