The composer Rodion Shchedrin grew up in a devout family in Stalinist Russia, at the time when religious texts were banned. Even the works of the great sacred composers throughout the ages, sacreligiously, had their spiritual texts replaced with secular ones. Shchedrin was talented enough to enrol as a student at the state-funded choral school, established to replace the choral schools attached to the disbanded orthodox churches. A great number of changes took place in Russia during the composer’s life-time, and eventually led to the acceptance of sacred works, such as this, The Sealed Angel.
The work – written in a sound-world akin to that of composers such as Tavener and Arvo Pärt - is associated, through its title, with a tale by Nikolay Leskov about old Russian rustic craftsmen who preserve an icon of great religious significance.
Completed in 1988, it is a striking combination of Russian orthodox music and Russian folk melody. At the same time it is modern, especially in sections such as The disciples were Illumined,
where a tremendous, discordant climax marks the mention of Judas’s crime. The piece has a serenely beautiful opening, which goes on to introduce the bucolic shepherd’s pipe - here an oboe, with mysterious but also slightly modern overtones. Many sections are full of pure, lyrical beauty – such as in the opening to Coro Tacet
, and the intense and radiant conclusion, in which the voices fade out at the same time as the strains of the oboe.
The interesting sleeve-notes take the form of a moving interview with Shchedrin, in which he speaks of the restrictions of growing up in Stalinist Russia, and his joy and amazement at how well his music has been received. One is struck by the composer’s humility, and glad that we are now able to hear this impressive work.
The Sealed Angel
is excellently performed here. The combined choirs give a compelling account of this intense and beautiful work: singing with clarity, sensitivity and tremendous conviction. This is one of those works, one might imagine, that would have the power not just to uplift, but also to calm and soothe in moments of personal grief.