Vêpres Monastiques Russes
Appel cloches [2:15]
Office [39:51]
Choeur des Moines du Monastère de l’Union à Chevetogne
rec. c.1965, Church of the Monastery de Chevetogne. ADD

This is, you might think, a somewhat obscure disc but one, which was, and still is of considerable historic importance. First the down-side.

It has been recorded by a French label and although the essay by Johann von Gardner has been well translated, there are no texts either in French, English or in the original Russian. This has the effect of not allowing the listener to navigate the order of service in full.

The notes only help a little and they end by pronouncing enigmatically that “This recording is the first of its kind. Perhaps it may be of help to liturgists and musicians in their quest for solutions to new problems”. In the years since, more recordings of this sort have been released but this disc is of a real Russian Orthodox vespers service (somewhat truncated) and the feast represented is that for 4 December. We know this as the Feast of St. Barbara also called the Orthodox of the Great Martyr Barbara who nowadays, amongst other things, is the patron saint of miners and explosives! The other saint on this day is St. John of Damascus who died in the 8th Century and is regarded by Roman Catholics as one of the Church doctors.

If you calculate, as the ancient church did, the day to start at nightfall then Vespers is the First service of the new day. The chants are from the school of Kiev but the harmonisations go back only as far as the seventeenth century, which is what you hear. Parallel thirds are common but there can also be recitativic and quick, incisive declamation of the text. The psalms will also sometimes be sung by a solo cantor or reader or sometimes ‘in alternatim’ with the choir or even performed simultaneously. But an analytical musical description is really inappropriate because, as the notes tell us the disc is “not a concert but a sung service”. They even begin by reminding us that “Church music should never really be performed in circumstances other than those for which it was composed”. How we might ever hear say, Bruckner’s masses I am not too clear but I think one gets the gist.

More space and words are however given - not to the music or service - but to a eulogy to André Charlin, all in French. I assume that by describing him a touche-à-out he is being called a jack-of-all-trades but it is in the realm of his pioneering work in the early days of stereophonic recordings that he is mainly remembered. He died in 1983 at the age of 80 having also worked for EMI and Erato. It was his ideas and his technique that made this high-quality recording possible. Indeed it may be knocking on for fifty years old but this recording still comes across vividly and clearly with superb and natural spacing, which was always his aim - a real sense of the ecclesiastical soundscape of the monks observing passionately but reverently their nightly office. Charlin was a prolific sound engineer and his specially invented microphone head became the hallmark of his individuality and class.

The singing is excellent, clear and with pure intonation, faultless I would say for a quiet vespers service and with a tangible atmosphere.

So if this disc fires your fancy it’s worth searching out and the website www.charlin-disques.com might help you further although it is mostly in French.

Gary Higginson

The singing is excellent, clear and with pure intonation, faultless I would say for a quiet vespers service and with a tangible atmosphere.