I first encountered the music of Alexander Levine a couple of years ago when Tenebrae recorded his Prayers for Mankind. A Symphony of Prayers of Father Alexander Men
(2007-08). I was impressed by the music and by the fine performance it received (review
) so I welcomed the chance to hear Tenebrae in another of his works for a cappella
There is a link between this present work and the Prayers for Mankind.
The texts for Prayers for Mankind
were a series of prayers by the influential Russian Orthodox priest, Fr. Alexander Men (1935-1990) who was, until his assassination in 1990 a leading figure in the religious revival in post-Soviet Russia. It was while visiting the grave near Moscow of Fr. Men, a family friend, in 2005 that Alexander Levine felt impelled to compose a musical setting of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Levine describes the process that led him to compose the music in a booklet note. I was interested to read that the finished score benefited from the patronage of Valery Gergiev to whom Levine showed the score in 2007. Gergiev arranged forthe work to be performed by the Mariinsky Opera Choir at his Easter Festival in 2008 and it was given at four consecutive Festivals between 2008 and 2011.
The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is one of the key Eucharistic liturgies of the Orthodox Church; it is used on most weekdays and dates back, I believe, to the fifth century. Levine’s musical setting is divided into 22 separate movements, all of which are quite short – in this performance the majority last for between three and five minutes and the longest takes 6:20.
The music is recognisably founded on and indebted to the musical traditions of the Orthodox Church yet, as you would expect, Levine has not slavishly followed that tradition and produced a clone of earlier settings. That much is obvious right at the start when, after the Deacon’s incantation the choir sings “Amin”. However, this word is not set to the traditional two sonorous block chords. Rather, the word floats around on intertwining thematic ribbons before finally coming to rest on two soft block chords. In other words, Levine has built on the Orthodox tradition but, very rightly, he’s given it a contemporary slant and has brought his own musical experiences and ideas to bear. Nor has he been afraid to bring in musical influences from outside the Orthodox mainstream. I think it’s worth quoting from his note on the piece. He says this:-
“I perceived the ethical values of liturgical prayers as being ecumenical
(my italics) in their essence …. That is why the music of this Liturgy highlights different musical approaches found in Christian cultures across history from Greek or Byzantine chant, to medieval polyphony. The pervading influence of renaissance counterpoint and Byzantine chant alongside a poly-chord texture features prominently in this liturgy.”
Much of the music is very beautiful. I can easily see two or three of the movements having the potential to become popular as free-standing pieces as has happened to ‘Bogoroditsye Devo’ from Rachmaninov’s All Night Vigil
. In this category I would place the intense, very beautiful First Antiphon (Movement II); the Third Antiphon (Movement V), a wonderful setting of The Beatitudes in which the music is sometimes assertive and sometimes radiant; and the lovely Hymn to the Virgin (Movement XVI), which features light, transparent musical textures, as befits the feminine subject.
I found that one very soon falls under the spell of Levine’s music. In my case this had happened well before the end of the first movement, Introduction and Great Litany, in which there are some ravishing choral textures. In this movement, which is the longest, much of the music is slow and prayerful, especially when the words ‘Lord, have mercy’ are being sung, but eventually the choir’s prayer becomes more urgent in tone. This is a characteristic that we will encounter quite often as the work unfolds: on many occasions Levine doesn’t maintain the same tempo or mood for an entire movement; rather he varies his music in urgency as the words demand. So, for example, the third movement, Second Antiphon, starts with male voices and at quite a steady pace. Gradually, the music becomes more urgent in tone, especially as female voices are added to the vocal mix. We find that both the pace of the music picks up and that the tessitura rises ever higher as the chorus of praise intensifies.
Much of the music is slow or moderate in tempo, as one might expect, but there are also many fervent, animated passages. The Trisagion Hymn (Movement VII), for example, is, for the most part, strongly rhythmical, founded on a repeated figure sung by the basses. The effect is very exciting. Immediately afterwards, however, comes the highly contrasting Litany of Fervent Supplication. Here Levine constructs 3:32 of very beautiful, contemplative music using just three words of text.
Each individual movement contains rewarding and lovely music yet the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I find that the work’s greatest effect is cumulative and it’s fitting that the final movement, ‘Blessed be the Name of the Lord’, ends in a blaze of affirmation.
Levine’s Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is one of those works which, when you hear it, you feel the composer had
to write – and that’s without reading his note, which confirms that this is indeed the case. It strikes me as a work of deep conviction and sincerity; a piece, in short, that comes from the heart. The music is wonderfully varied, inventive, responsive to the words and accessible to the listener. It’s a work that, I should imagine, poses many technical challenges for the singers yet it is superbly imagined for voices – the textures are wonderful and often ravish the ear. In Nigel Short and Tenebrae the music has the best possible advocates. The singing is immaculate and burns with conviction. It is, quite simply, superb. Producer Nicholas Parker and Engineer Mike Hatch have recorded the performance with great sympathy, producing sound that is clear yet also atmospheric.
Anyone interested in the music of the Orthodox Church should hear this beautiful and imaginative score which respects and is built on the tradition of Orthodox music yet at the same time takes that tradition in a new and exciting direction. The disc is equally of interest to collectors who appreciate eloquent and beautifully written modern choral music.