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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873 - 1943)
Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (1910) [96.11]
Protodeacon - Father Andre Papkov (bass)
Celebrant – David Adams (tenor)
Second Celebrant – Todd E. Berry (bass)
Kansas City Chorale/Charles Bruffy
rec. St. John's Center, Kansas City, Missouri, 12–15 October 1995
NIMBUS NI 5497/8 [41.26 + 53.45]

Experience Classicsonline

The Russian Orthodox Church was not as bound up with Russian classical music as the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches. During the 19th century composed music remained central to both these latter but the Russian Orthodox liturgy relied solely on traditional chants. In 1878 Tchaikovsky wrote his Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, and showed how a contemporary composer could reinvigorate the traditional liturgy. Tchaikovsky's setting was not without controversy within the Russian church and raised a number of debates about what sort of music was suitable for use within the church. A school of church composition developed which worked within the accepted canonical forms, producing both new work and arrangements of traditional chants.
Following Tchaikovsky, a number of composers composed complete liturgical cycles, including Ippolitov-Ivanov, Gretchaninoff and Tcherepnin. Whilst Rachmaninov was a student he attended lectures on Russian chant by Stepan Smolensky, the historian and chant scholar. At the age of 20, Rachmaninov composed a sacred concerto on a text for the feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God. Smolensky was sufficiently impressed with it to try to persuade Rachmaninov to write more for the church; Smolensky even offered Rachmaninov a post at the Synodal School of Church Singing.
It was not until 1910 that Rachmaninov turned his attention to liturgical music and wrote a setting of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the main Eucharistic service of the Russian Orthodox church. When Rachmaninov's setting was premièred in 1910, it was in a concert by the Moscow Synodal Choir. They did not perform the work complete but included just the major hymns. It is not entirely clear whether Rachmaninov intended the work for liturgical use, but he set not only the major hymns but all the other parts of the service (litanies, responses) which are typically sung by a choir.
Rachmaninov was not an expert in liturgical music, so his setting revisits each text and sets it anew without preconceived ideas about what was or was not correct form. He would make greater use of traditional chant in his setting of the All Night Vigil (the so-called Vespers) which dates from five years later and this latter work is the greater piece. But Rachmaninov's setting of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is a notable achievement and it is profoundly expressive.
The completeness of Rachmaninov's setting gives performers something of a problem: how much of the priestly and diaconate responses should be included. Recordings vary; with some giving what is essentially a selection of the major choral items and others including the deacon's part to help make sense of the piece, so that the choir's responses are a response to something.
This disc, recorded in 1995 in Kansas is probably one of the most complete recordings as it includes not only the deacon but two celebrants as well. The result is a performance which approaches liturgical re-construction and as such is very welcome. This generous approach, though, means that the recording spreads over two discs.
Not everyone will want to have Rachmaninov's work performed in such a leisurely fashion. But Father Andre Papkov, who sings the deacon's role, has an impressive, dark Russian voice and a supremely compelling way with the chant. He brings dual training to the role as he not only studied at the New England Conservatory but serves as Protodeacon in the Russian Orthodox Church. The two celebrants do not have a Russian Orthodox background and are members of the Kansas City Chorale.
The idea that we are listening to a service seems to have affected the recording itself, as the choir is recorded in a rather generous acoustic, with levels low and quite a bit of distance between them and the listener. Conductor Charles Bruffy seems to have been aiming for a performance which approached the mystical. This is emphasised by the sound quality of the choir; being an American group they lack the deep sound and dark vowels which Slav choirs bring to this repertoire. Instead they give us flexibility, clarity and a nice control of vibrato; all things which might make this disc appeal to you. But on repeated listening I kept coming back to the distancing effect of the recording and acoustic. Rachmaninov wrote strong, romantic music and frankly I want a performance with more vigour and more presence. This is a shame. There is a fine, shapely musical account of the work somewhere in there, but it lacks a dramatic response to Rachmaninov's music.
The Kansas City Chorale is a 24 person professional choir, based in Kansas and Charles Bruffy is the musical director - and has been since 1988.
The CD booklet includes an excellent article by Vladimir Morosan, the editor of “Sergei Rachmaninov – The Complete Sacred Works”. The full text of the Liturgy is included, but in English only and I rather missed having a transliteration of the Russian text.
This disc recommends itself to those who wish to have a complete liturgical account of the work. Not everyone will like the way the recording stretches to two discs. Even if you buy this account I would recommend getting another version which responds more positively to the drama and vigour of Rachmaninov's setting.
Robert Hugill

Nick Barnard also reviewed this disc and was more impressed with it


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