Aleksandr Tikhonovich GRECHANINOV(1864-1956)
Now the Powers of Heaven, Op 58 No 6 [5:20]
In Thy Kingdom, Op 58 No 3* [7:29]
Lord, now lettest Thou Thy Servant, Op 34 No 1 [2:32]
All-Night Vigil, Op 59 (Vsenoshchnoye bdeniye) (1912) [47:12] ('Vespers')
Holst Singers/Stephen Layton
* James Bowman (counter-tenor)
rec. 8, 9, 15 November 1998, The Temple Church, London.

I remember vividly the first time I heard Grechaninov’s liturgical music. That was back in 1994 when Chandos issued their superb recording of the Seven Days of Passion. The opening track floored me and to this day I know of no more beautiful and impressive sound as sound per se than a fine echt Russian choir in full voice. Somehow this remarkable disc, first issued on Hyperion passed me by; its re-release on their budget label, Helios is very welcome. It could alert collectors to the hitherto unknown glories of a Russian orthodox choral tradition which dates back little more than a hundred years but has its roots in chants centuries old.

As a prelude to the main work, we are given three other pieces: two motets and a responsorial canticle, the latter featuring counter-tenor James Bowman, who has long been involved as a solo performer with the Holst Singers. His role here requires him to sing within a range of no more than five notes but he does so expressively.

If you are already familiar with, and love, the sonorous incantation of Rachmaninov’s so-called “Vespers”, this disc is definitely for you. Regardless of the specific qualities of the music, just the sound of the choir here is sufficient to transport me into a spiritual dimension redolent of bejewelled icons, smoky tapers and the practice of unshakable faith through centuries of tumult and oppression. This may be a Romantic fantasy, but the music itself consistently reaches heavenward. The most striking aspect of the scoring in this work is the frequency with which the basses are required to sustain an ostinato underpinning the great blocks of four-part choral writing. These features in combination with the glorious harmonic melismata and soaring sopranos of exceptional purity and homogeneity create one of the most evocative and distinctive musical idioms I know. The music spans four octaves, from an incredible repeated low A from the basses to the plangent top line and rarely strays from noble major keys, creating a sense of luminosity. Sample the sustained low Bs at the end of track 2 and the low A which concludes track 12, and ask yourself if the choir in question can really be English and ostensibly amateur – yet it is; the first I have heard to match the choirs under Sveshnikov in the famous 1965 recording of the Rachmaninov “Vespers” or the Novospassky Monastery Choir in a superb 1994 “Russian Chant for Vespers” disc on Naxos. The Holst Singers are the most authentically non-Russian, Russian–sounding choir I have ever heard – and their Russian pronunciation sounds excellent, too.

The highlight of this disc is track 12; a grand, complex, multi-voiced hymn of praise in which choral recitative alternates with solo fragments in the style of a liturgical reading. The next, final track, Vzbrannoy voyevode, brings the work to a fitting, climactic conclusion by imitating the swinging of great bells in hymning the Mother of God. There is a kind of monumental simplicity to Grechaninov’s stately melodies; the work is a paradigm of 19th Century Russian polyphony.

It was Tchaikovsky who first introduced a choral cycle for the Vigil in 1881. The first performance of Grechaninov’s “Vespers” in 1912 predates Rachmaninov’s celebrated version by three years yet it soon declined into desuetude and was not performed again in modern times until 1995 in the United States. Despite the relatively few texts set and its comparative brevity at 47 minutes – possibly an indication that the composer envisaged performance of his music in concert more than as integral to liturgical worship - it creates a sense of massive assurance as it weaves fragments of traditional chant into richly textured waves of sound. Given that it offers Grechaninov’s individuality of style but also many of the virtues of Rachmaninov’s - admittedly more substantial - version, it deserves to be far better known.

This is a bargain issue but full notes and texts are provided.

Ralph Moore

If you are already familiar with, and love, the sonorous incantation of Rachmaninov’s so-called “Vespers”, this disc is definitely for you.