For the more beady-eyed of you, you will notice that the birth
and death dates of this so-called ‘Maistor Byzantin’ are
not given. That is because, as the booklet notes eventually get
round to telling us, no-one is quite certain if Koukouzélis
lived in the 9th Century or much, much later. In fact
to quote the notes by Lycourgas Angelopoulos who is the head
of the Byzantine Chorus of Greece and an expert on Byzantine
music “... many of them (researchers) now think that the
peak of his production occurred in the early 14th Century.” Later
we are told that another researcher believes that the composer “lived
much earlier” and that he was really ‘Grigoris the
Domestic (church singer) and who lived at Grat Lavranon Mount
Athos”; in which case the date of 884 is offered for one
of his manuscripts. It seems more likely to me that he may have
lived in the mid-11th Century. It was at that time
that the individual cells of the hermits were subordinated to
the larger foundation of Athos which coincided with the development
of the liturgy.
The beautiful booklet cover has a figure, could it be Christ
haloed in gold, or could it be Koukouzélis who is celebrated
in the Orthodox Church on 1 October? In fact it is Christ who
is represented in an image found in a wonderful mosaic in the
Monastery d’Iveron on Mount Athos. In the Byzantine empire
only the Holy Mountain of Athos has had its form and spirit conserved
as I found out when I stayed there as a pilgrim in 2000. There
I heard for myself rhythmic and tuneful chanting, sometimes with
melodies surging high, too high for many of the monks and sometimes
deep in the soles of their boots so that all text is lost in
a grumble of quavers. That is what you can still experience when
listening to this professionally recorded CD.
What we are told is that Koukouzélis was Bulgarian, the
father of his country’s music. Yet that may not be the
case. First there is only one Bulgarian monastery on Athos; most
being Greek. In addition his work may be confused with that of
other composers such as Glykeotis Dyssikos and one Argyropoulos.
Koukouzélis was probably Greek. So, in much confusion,
I turned to the chant itself with the help of the rather technical
booklet notes. Sadly, these throw little light on the background
but offer the texts - perhaps a little curtailed. There’s
also an uncompromising analysis of the modes, both melodic and
rhythmic. But we are not here judging music or even, I thought
at first, its performance. Then again the Choeur Byzantine is
a smart outfit, founded as long ago as 1977. They sing in a way
that is acceptable more to the CD market. They are well rehearsed,
are more homogeneous in sound quality than the monks and there
are, probably, more of them - fifteen listed - yet for the monks
the chant is all part and parcel of the ancient liturgy which
can be heard day in day out all hours from its twenty monasteries.
Although I stayed at d’Iveron the most impressive is in
many ways Xenophon which is well worth viewing from the sea and
one of the small fishing boats.
But I digress: let’s take for example track 3, the piece
in honour of St. Dimitrios, “of renown glory”. It
uses a poem of Bishop Anatolios, one of the early fathers. In
track 4 the text paraphrases Psalm 134 and belongs to the so-called
Latrinos Plyeleos for major feast days - in this case for the
Archangels. The booklet gives the text and then proceeds: “The
first (unit) develops mainly in the 1st mode éso,
ending typically on its pentaphony (before the word Leghe) with
short occurrences in the 4th mode’s plagal of
the grave mode (Varis) and on the 4th mode. The second
unit begins: …” I’m not sure how helpful all
this is for each piece.
The longest piece is the final track ‘Kratime’ which
weighs in at a stamina-sapping thirty-two minutes. It is certainly
a striking composition which was written “as for a Choir”.
No text is offered for this, but there is a guide, as above,
to its modal construction. Speaking of texts, not all, as I have
indicated, are given and I make no apologies for giving you,
in the header, the titles in English. The CD box only gives them
in French. Even so, the essay is well translated.
The recording, which is excellent, with a sense of ecclesiastical
space and air without being distant was I think made, unless
someone tells me otherwise, at a church in south eastern France.
It is one of an enterprising series of four CDs. The others are
advertised in the inside case, of Byzantine Chant made under
the direction of Lycourgos Angelopoulos.