Byzantine Chant
Then he shall speak to them in his anger [8.15]
He shall grind his teeth and pine away [6.20]
Strengthen, O most glorious, the town that magnifies you. O Dimitrios [18.16]
Bless the Lord, O Choir of Archangels [7.00]
Kratime [32.58]
Choeur Byzantine de Grèce/Lycourgas Angelopoulos
rec. L’Eglise Saint-Blaise du Plan de Pées; no date given, released 1995
JADE 399 299-2 [73.08]

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. 

Gary Higginson