Father Alexander Men (1935-1990) was a theologian, scholar,
writer and priest of the Russian Orthodox Church. A leading
figure in the religious revival in post-Soviet Russia, he was
assassinated in 1990.
The Russian-born composer, Alexander Levine, who has lived in
London since the early 1990s, has selected six of Father Men’s
prayers and set them powerfully and prayerfully for a cappella
chorus. He describes Men’s prayers as “a gem in the spiritual
treasury of Mankind” and says of them: “contemporary in their
language and in the problems they give voice to …[they] express
in essence the expectations of every human being living on Earth.”
Non-believers might take issue with that last sentiment but
the words of these prayers are wonderfully expressive and make
a strong impact simply as words. The addition of Levine’s marvellous,
deeply-felt music enhances their expressive power still further.
I presume this is a fairly recent work but, despite quite a
bit of searching, including on the composer’s own website, I’ve
been unable to find the date of composition.
I’m not sure if the work was written to be sung in English or
in Russian but Tenebrae’s performance is given in English and
though the texts are printed in full their diction is so good
that most of the words can be followed without recourse to the
booklet. However, as Men’s prayers are quite detailed and, in
most cases, quite lengthy, it’s advisable to follow the texts
in order fully to appreciate them.
The music, which is in no way a pastiche of the traditional
Orthodox style, is very impressive. Much of it is slow in tempo,
though the basic pulse of both movements III and V is fast and
urgent. Whether the pace is slow or fast, loud or soft, there
is at all times a real intensity to the music. The harmonies
are often searching – as, for example, in Movement II, ‘A Prayer
for Unity’ – and though the music is completely tonal, dissonance
is used to telling effect.
Movement IV, ‘I Love You, Lord’ is the longest of the movements
heard up to that point yet its text is, by some distance, the
briefest – a mere four lines. This is one of the most interior
of the movements – Levine refers to the “privacy” of the prayer
– and the music is slow, hushed, devotional and contemplative.
At many points in the score as a whole I find Levine’s music
daring and in this section his daring finds expression in the
slow, still quietness of his writing. His intentions are realised
superbly by Tenebrae.
But I think that Levine surpasses even the achievement of ‘I
Love You, Lord’ in the last movement, ‘A Prayer for the Disciples
of Christ’. This is much the longest movement, accounting for
nearly a third of the work’s entire duration. After a fervent
affirmation the music relapses into a predominantly slow pace
and it becomes deeply reflective in tone. From 11:38 onwards,
and starting with the words “Jesus Christ, Son of God, who has
revealed for us the Heavenly Father”, the music is as serene
and beautiful as any we have heard in the preceding fifty-odd
minutes. A number of soloists - all of them excellent, especially
baritone Stephen Kennedy - intone the words of the prayer against
a softly luminous choral background. These last ten minutes
or so of the work, which eventually dies away as a mere sliver
of sound, possess a rare degree of spirituality and Levine –
and Father Men – communicate with the listener at a very deep
level. I found this passage especially moving.
In fact the whole work is very moving. Superbly and imaginatively
written for the voices, it must make huge demands on the singers
– not least in terms of concentration. Nigel Short and his expert
choir meet all the challenges head-on and surmount them. The
singing is superb from start to finish and even the most complex
passages are delivered with great clarity. The performance has
a burning conviction that is wholly appropriate to the subject
matter. Engineer Mike Hatch has captured the performance in
clear yet atmospheric sound.
This is a notable new choral work and it’s impossible to imagine
that it could have been served better than by Tenebrae. Both
this composition and the performance it receives are significant