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Rodion SHCHEDRIN (b. 1932)
The Sealed Angel (1988)
Choir of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge/Geoffrey Webber
Choir of King’s College, London/David Trendall
Clare Wills (oboe)
rec. Worksop College Chapel, 12-14 July 2008 DDD
Russian text and English translation included
DELPHIAN DCD34067 [54:42]
Experience Classicsonline

I have to confess that I’m not very familiar with the music of Rodion Shchedrin. I have heard his wonderfully imaginative and entertaining Carmen Suite for strings and percussion, which uses music from Bizet’s opera to marvellous effect. That apart, I reviewed his Fifth Piano Concerto a couple of years ago but was less than convinced by it. However, The Sealed Angel is something else entirely. 

The booklet accompanying this CD contains a very interesting interview with the composer but unfortunately there’s surprisingly little about background to the work nor is there any descriptive note about the music itself. Since the music may be unfamiliar to many readers it may help if I supply a little information that I’ve been able to glean from the internet.

From the booklet conversation we learn that the text is by a nineteenth century Russian writer, Nikolai Leskov, but not much else. In fact, Leskov (1831-1895) was a Russian novelist and journalist. His novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1865) was the inspiration for Shostakovich’s eponymous opera. It seems that Leskov became increasingly disenchanted with the Russian Orthodox Church from the 1870s onwards and this was reflected in his writings. The Sealed Angel dates from 1873 and relates the story of a group of Old Believers. The Old Believers were a conservative faction of Russian Orthodox Christians who, from the mid-seventeenth century onwards, engaged in an often bitter dispute with the mainstream church. The Sealed Angel tells of a Ukrainian group of Old Believers whose icons are confiscated by the authorities. Most grievous of all is the loss of their icon of a shining angel. Leskov tells the story of their efforts to recover it.

So far as I have been able to establish the texts that Shchedrin sets are passages within the story that are anthems sung by the Old Believers. In fact, from one commentary I’ve read it seems that Shchedrin envisaged that the way to perform his work would be to have Leskov’s narrative read to the audience with his music sung at the points that they occur in the book. It’s a pity that the booklet note doesn’t expand on this background.

The work is scored for mixed chorus, which, in a sense, sings unaccompanied. I choose my words advisedly there because the part for the solo wind instrument is not an accompaniment in the true sense. This instrument has a very important symbolic part to play but also a highly practical role. As Shchedrin explains in the interview, he included the instrumental part, which isn’t by any means continuous, as a device to help the choir sustain the pitching over the work’s lengthy span. The symbolic function of the instrument, he says, is “to join two worlds that are very important to me, Russian religious tradition but also Russian folk tradition, the music of the church and music of the countryside, the Russian peasants that I heard about me as a boy.” In the light of these comments one must assume that the wind instrument represents “the soul of the Russian people” as it says on the back cover of this disc. But there may be an interesting debate on this point. The solo instrument used here is an oboe, eloquently played by the excellent Clare Wills. The composer states that the instrument used “can also be a flute”. Interestingly, both of the other recordings of the work use a flute and a commentary on one of these recordings states that “Shchedrin introduces the solo flute to represent the spirit of the icon of the angel.” I have not heard the work with a flute but I can see why a flute might be interpreted as relating to an angel. However, on a practical level there are several occasions in the score where the wind instrument has to make an interjection into a rich choral texture and in that context perhaps the oboe, with its cutting edge, would enjoy an advantage over a flute. In this present performance the oboe very effectively suggests the earthiness that one might associate with Russian peasant society of old so I think Shchedrin’s apparent intention has been realised successfully.

The music itself makes a huge impact. It seems to me that one of Shchedrin’s greatest achievements has been to write a piece that is rooted in the musical and harmonic traditions of the Russian Orthodox liturgy but in which twentieth century techniques are used in a wholly respectful way to enrich and develop that tradition. The work is cast in nine movements, several of which follow their predecessor without a break.

The first movement begins quietly, slowly and reverently but gradually the harmonies open up and become richer and more luminous. Shchedrin’s long, flowing vocal lines are especially impressive. By the time the third movement is reached the choral writing has assumed a more modern tone, though the traditional Orthodox ambience is never lost. The text of the fourth movement is concerned with the betrayal of Jesus by Judas and here the music takes on a new tone. Dissonance is used to convey indignation at the treachery of Judas. Shchedrin is very skilful here in conveying contempt for Judas through powerful writing that still stays recognisably within the bounds of the traditions of Orthodox music. This movement makes huge demands on the singers, to which the combined choirs respond with committed and sonorous singing. At 4:41 Shchedrin introduces a series of loud, dull drum strokes, with which he ratchets up the tension still more until at 6:01, in an astonishing moment, the whole choir sings a huge upward glissando, which culminates in an impassioned choral scream. This is searingly dramatic and extremely effective.

The short, central fifth movement is for oboe alone. I suspect there is some significance in this fact and it would have been useful if the notes had covered this point. The seventh movement is the longest. At the start we hear a plaintive soprano solo, which is very well sung, and later in the movement there’s an equally successful alto solo. The words speak of an aching sense of separation from God and Shchedrin’s music illustrates this marvellously. It’s a very moving episode. The penultimate section is a setting of The Lord’s Prayer. It begins slowly, in a mood of devotion but rises to a powerful climax before the music subsides once again. The last movement sets the same words that were heard in the first movement and the music bears some similarities. However, the tone of this last movement becomes much more impassioned in the middle (from around 2:10 to 3:10) before a serene, beautiful ending is achieved.

The Sealed Angel is a work of great beauty and profundity, which I’d strongly urge collectors to experience for themselves in this splendid performance. As reference points I’d cite the liturgical music of Rachmaninov and there are audible similarities with some of the music of John Tavener. But Shchedrin’s music bears its own individual stamp and in this work of great feeling and integrity he responds eloquently to words that are very beautiful and powerful in their own right. 

These two English student choirs gave the UK première performances of The Sealed Angel in 2008, after which they made this recording. It’s evident that their respective directors, who conduct four movements each on the recording, had prepared them superbly and the singing is consistently out of the top drawer. The voices are youthful and have a very welcome freshness. Even with the addition of three guest singers – all low basses – the fifty-four singers can’t quite achieve the sonority that an East European choir would achieve but they compensate in other ways and I’m full of admiration for their performance. That said, I’d love to hear the work sung by a choir from Russia.

As to the presentation, well the recorded sound is first rate. The chapel of Worksop College has a fine resonance, which the engineers have used most skilfully, but although the recording has a fine, warm resonance it is also admirably clear. I have two regrets about the documentation. The interview with the composer is both interesting and highly relevant but I just wish it had been supplemented by a note giving more information about the background to the work and commentary about the music. The other regret is that an alliterative version of the Russian text is not provided. It’s all very well having the original Russian text but non-Russian speakers will find it very difficult to match up what the singers are singing – with admirably clear diction – against the English translation.

But these two quibbles cannot and should not reduce the warmest possible recommendation for this very fine disc. I’ve found listening to this excellent and committed performance of The Sealed Angel to be a very moving experience. This work is a major discovery for me. I hope this very fine recording will win many new admirers for it and congratulate Delphian for their enterprise in issuing it.

John Quinn



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