first this CD may be a little hard to get to grips with. It’s
The music on offer
here is also likely either to leave you cold; or to captivate
– as conventionally with bagpipes. Mysteries of Byzantine
Chant is an anthology of liturgical
music from both Romania and Greece for Holy Week and Easter. The two dozen short items - none
is longer than five and a half minutes - are anonymous and traditional.
They are by named composers from the eighteenth to the twentieth
although apparently representative and ‘semi-staged’ - there
are priests, respondents and psalm singers - Mysteries
of Byzantine Chant is something of a sampler. Women’s voices
are used too; something that is not common practice in the Byzantine
tradition. The intention is to illustrate the influence of Byzantine
Orthodoxy as part of the more familiar Greek traditions on the
only Latin country (Romania) to embrace it fully.
Some of the texts
themselves originate from earlier (the eighth century) than
the first musical notation (the tenth century). So reconstruction
involves much informed guesswork. This is not, perhaps, quite
so much of a task as might be supposed. Interestingly this
CD itself shows why: there is a remarkable continuity in Byzantine
chant. This is evidenced by the style of compositions dating
from the last 150 years. Examples on this CD are from Phokeos,
Vlahaul and Sakellardis - who all died in the hundred years
before the middle of the last century. This surely reduces the
latitude within which even the earliest monophonic chant was
formed; monophonic chant was still being written in this milieu
in the fourteenth century anyway.
style makes use of the ison or drone: while sounding
melodically complex, such chant is – nevertheless – truly monophonic.
Another complexity which this CD illustrates well is the (positive,
and creative) tension that resulted from the adaptation of Greek
chant to the Romanian language from the sixteenth to eighteenth
centuries. Greek was typically melismatic; Romanian syllabic.
So, although western
plainchant might make a good point of reference for those totally
unfamiliar with the idiom of the beautiful, rich and very moving
music to be heard in this selection, there are many theological,
rhetorical, poetical and doctrinal differences that contribute
to the clean and direct impact which it makes in performance.
These characteristics have obviously been respected in what’s
on offer here. The darker, more insistent music of the Russian
Orthodox traditions might also make a point of comparison. But
this, Byzantine, music is lighter in texture, more focused;
it’s spontaneous; unrushed; it’s expressive without being self-conscious.
We’re not ‘listening in’ on the devotions of others. Nor are
we being invited to participate. Merely to understand and appreciate
the sense of wonder and at times of rapture experienced by the
Again the CD provides
its own demonstration of this unhurried confidence: the handful
of twentieth century compositions - by Cucu and Constantinescu
- on Mysteries of Byzantine Chant continue and implicitly
venerate the traditions of the earlier musical forms, atmosphere
and purposes. They do not try to update or adapt them.
One might have wished
for a collection a little more organic … holistic. This is a
series of excerpts. The booklet is rather sketchy; yet the acoustic
and recording standards are more than adequate. The choral singing
in particular is effortless and without seams. The ‘soloists’
are many steps away from folk traditions yet entirely genuine.
The overall impression
that one has while listening to this disc is of quiet, undemonstrative
highly confident and competent musicians and clerics engaged
without fuss in something much older and more profound than
they are. Yet, thanks to their technique and commitment, this
is music with which they can and do closely identify. They do
so with an inevitability that’s as transparent and persuasive
as is that drone which will leave this music in your head for
hours after you’ve stopped listening to it.