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Passion Week, Op. 58 (1911-12)
(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
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
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.
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
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.
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'.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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