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Russia
Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)
Drei geistliche Gesänge (Three Sacred Hymns) (1984) [7:23]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
O Theodokos, immer wachend im Gebet (Mother of God, ever-vigilant in Prayer) (1893) [8:38]
Sofia GUBAIDULINA (b. 1931)
Hommage à Marina Zwetajewa (Homage to Marina Tsvetaeva) (1984) [19:39]
Sergey Ivanovich TANEYEV (1856-1915)
Aus: Chöre nach Jakov Polanski (From: Twelve Part-Songs of Jakov Polonsky), Op. 27 (1909) [16:53]
Mikhail GLINKA (1804-1857)
Cherubim-Hymnus (Cherubic Hymn) (1837) [4:09]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Cherubim-Hymnus (Cherubic Hymn) (1878) [4:58]
Wakako Nakaso (soprano) (Gubaidulina); Sabine Czinczel (alto); Alexander Yudenkov (tenor); Mikhail Shashkov (bass)
SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart/Marcus Creed
rec. 9-11 July, 16 July, 6 November 2013, SWR Funkstudio, Stuttgart, Germany
Full texts provided with English translations
HÄNSSLER CLASSIC CD 93.317 [62:09]

Following close on the heels of America, works by Copland, Reich, Cage, Feldman, Bernstein and Barber the SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart and Marcus Creed have now turned their attention to Russia. What we hear is another fascinating collection of unaccompanied choral works from a projected Hänssler series dedicated to the choral music of a different countries. The mix of sacred and secular music spans almost one-hundred and fifty years and encompasses a broad group of six Russian composers all influenced to some degree by the traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church.
 
Schnittke wrote the Drei geistliche Gesänge (Three Sacred Hymns) in 1984 selecting texts from the Russian Orthodox Church. It was Valery Polyansky, the commissioner of the score, who directed the Russian State Symphony Capella in the first performance in 1994 in Stockholm. The opening Hymn to the Holy Mother of God is a beautiful work, rendered here with real precision and sacred feeling as is the intensely reverential second hymn, Prayer to Jesus. The third and final hymn, The Lord’s Prayer is engaging and is strong on devotional impact.
 
Composed in 1893, O Mother of God, ever-vigilant in Prayer is an early work written not long after Rachmaninov graduated from the Moscow Conservatory. It is sung here beautifully in both tone and expression.
 
Sofia Gubaidulina wrote her suite Hommage an Marina Zwetajewa (Homage to Marina Tsvetaeva) in 1984 but had to wait until 1989 for its première in Stockholm with the forces who sing it here. It's a setting of texts by Soviet/Russian poet Marina Zwetajewa who left Russia in 1922 for exile in Europe only to return in 1939 where she committed suicide in 1941. It’s a uniform cycle across its five conjoined movements: Unter den Wellen (Below Waves), Pferd (Horse), Alle Herrlichkeit (Glory), Zwischenspiel (Interlude) and Ein Garten (Garden). At times I find it hard to make sense of Zwetajewa’s texts. The style is varied in approach and I especially enjoyed No.1 Unter den Wellen (Below Waves) which shifts from austere, chant-like rushing to the delightfully lyrical. There are some bold vocal climaxes in No. 8 Alle Herrlichkeit (Glory) and No. 9 Ein Garten (Garden) is striking for its unusual if haunting sound-world.
 
Taneyev is represented here by three pieces drawn from the set of Twelve Part-Songs of Jakov Polonsky, Op. 27 from 1909. These feel like vocal tone-poems in character. Late-Romantic in style, Sterne (Stars), Über’m Berg zwei grimme Wolken (Above the hills two looming clouds ) and Sieh, wenn auf’s verschlaf’ne Meer (On days when on the dreaming sea) are highly attractive and well contrasted musical depictions of the subjects indicated by the titles.
 
The last two works are both settings of the Cherubim-Hymnus (Cherubikon or Cherubic Hymn) the song of the angels. This is extremely popular in the eastern Orthodox Church and Eastern Catholic Church. The first hymn by Glinka is dated 1837 and is pleasant if rather unmemorable. It is followed by Tchaikovsky’s appealing and uplifting setting from 1878. It has some lovely climaxes and a gloriously extended Alleluia.
 
Under the experienced Marcus Creed, its long standing music director, the SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart comes across as a judiciously prepared group. Its performances across this relatively wide ranging programme are exemplary. Compelling and immediate, the singing is well focused with the words impressively enunciated and an enviable tonal blend. Director Creed has chosen his quartet of soloists well: individual and expressive in tone but never overpowering.
 
The sound quality is to a respectable standard with reasonably clear sonics even if the volume needs pumping up. There is a concise yet interesting essay in the booklet which I found fairly helpful but my predilection is for reading more information about each work. At a total timing of 62.09 my only grumble is that the available space should have accommodated my taste for the music of Weinberg and Shchedrin or delivered some more pieces from Taneyev’s lovely Op. 27 Part-Songs.
 
Michael Cookson