Alexander LEVINE (b. 1955)
Prayers for Mankind. A Symphony of Prayers of Father Alexander Men:- I Morning Prayer [10:32]
II A Prayer for Unity [9:49]
III A Prayer for Humility [9:02]
IV I Love You, Lord [12:01]
V A Prayer for the Gift of Wisdom and Love [5:10]
VI A Prayer for the Disciples of Christ [21:42]
Tenebrae/Nigel Short
Russian and English texts included
rec. 8-10 February, 2010. All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London. DDD

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 achievements.

John Quinn

A notable new choral work superbly performed by Tenebrae.