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The Sacred Spirit of Russia
see end of review for track listing
Conspirare/Craig Hella Johnson
rec, February 2013, St Martin’s Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
HARMONIA MUNDI HMU807526 [77:50]

This disc forms an excellent introduction to the members of the so-called “New Russian Choral School”. In the last years of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th, set about the task of drawing upon centuries of Orthodox tradition to create their own choral works of unprecedented complexity to be sung in the context of an Orthodox service. In fact, the music on this disc is presented effectively in the form in which it could be used for a full service. The notes in the booklet, up to HM’s usual high standard, help to explain the background to the context of Orthodox church music, as well as to show how the different tracks could be used in an actual service.
 
The first thing to say is that it isn’t all cavernous basses and subterranean drones. In fact, the first thing that struck me about the Great Doxology that opens the disc was the brightness and clarity of the overall sound, crowned by ringing, crystalline sopranos that crest over the sound. That’s true of the whole disc: there is a tremendous blend to the sound that fits it very well indeed and makes every part seem to slot into its neighbours’ so that there it’s impossible to put an auditory cigarette paper between individual voices.
 
Ippolitov-Ivanov’s Bless the Lord is more like what I had expected: a supple top line, singing in thirds with its neighbour while a more monotonous bass underpins the whole thing. It’s stirring and inspiring, but also peculiarly comforting, speaking of solidity, strength and depth. I can easily see why it would be so appealing to Orthodox worshippers. The following motet from Gretchaninov (track 3), however, seems to find an auditory centre in a higher stave, with a dominant role for the upper voices which is every bit as effective. There is also a role for the solo voices, as a peculiarly earthy mezzo reminds us in Martynov’s Beatitudes, or the darkly incantatory bass that begins Kastalsky’s Mercy of Peace. This track I found particularly haunting: it weaves a beautiful web of sound, fluctuating between major and minor as it unfolds the liturgy in an unusually spellbinding fashion.
 
I found the contrasting structure of many of the numbers very interesting. Some, such as Kastalsky’s Today the Virgin or Tchesnokov’s Cherubic Hymn have fundamentally simple, hymn-like structures, and are all the more beautiful for it. Others are remarkably complex, putting me in mind of the multi-layered polyphony of some of Tallis’s Latin motets, surely one of the nearest western equivalents. Others use other metaphors to connect with the spirituality of the works: there is a powerful, wave-like structure to Sviridov’s Christmas Troparion, for example. Some use plainchant to make their spiritual point. Gretchaninov’s Creed does this triumphantly, combining the repetition of the chant with a blissful sequence of chords on the lower voices. Others, on the other hand, are almost trance-like in their repetition of rhythmic or melodic ideas.
 
The important unifying factor is the quality of the performances. This choir has impressed me before in very different repertoire, and it’s a sign of their versatility that they can be every bit as impressive in the black-and-gold repertory of the Russian Church. It’s the overall blend and togetherness of the sound that really matters. Craig Hella Johnson’s direction understands the unfolding shape of these great choruses.
 
My Russian isn’t good enough to comment on how good their enunciation of the language is; suffice to say that I was convinced, and they are good at the diphthongs and guttural vowels that make this repertoire so distinctive.
 
The acoustic helps, too. Even though it’s a Lutheran church, there is enough echo and space around the sound to conjure up the suggestion of a dark, onion-domed glittering interior. Furthermore, the sound is allowed to linger in a way that lets it die away but not sound gloopy. My only criticism is that, while the booklet provides the text in Russian and in English, French and German translation, the Russian text is in Cyrillic script only with no transliteration, so if you don’t read Russian then it’s all but impossible to know where you are in each track. Otherwise, this is well worth exploring.
 
Simon Thompson
 
Previous review: Dan Morgan

Track listing
Alexander Dmitrievitch KASTALSKY The Great Doxology No.2, Op. 57 [7:38]
Mikhail IPPOLITOV-IVANOV Bless the Lord, O My Soul, Op. 37, No.2 [2:40]
Alexander GRETCHANINOV Glory - Only Begotten Son, Op. 29, No.2 [2:35]
Vladimir MARTYNOV The Beatitudes [5:16]
Pavel TCHESNOKOV Come, Let Us Worship, Op. 8, No.2 [1:47]
Georgi SVIRIDOV Christmas Troparion (Inexpressible Wonder, No.4) [1:23]
Alexander Dmitrievitch KASTALSKY Today the Virgin (Znamenny Chant), Op. 7b [1:54]
As Many Have Been Baptized (Znamenny Chant), Op. 18c [2:14]
Pavel TCHESNOKOV Cherubic Hymn, Op. 7, No.1 [4:35]
Alexander GRETCHANINOV The Creed, Op. 29, No.8 [4:30]
Alexander Dmitrievitch KASTALSKY A Mercy of Peace (Znamenny Chant), Op. 6 [7:44]
ANONYMOUS Hymn to the Mother of God for the Nativity (Znamenny Chant) [2:28]
Alexander GRETCHANINOV Our Father, Op. 29, No.11 [4:43]
Pavel TCHESNOKOV Praise the Lord from the Heavens, Op. 42, No.9 [2:07]
Georgi SVIRIDOV A Wondrous Birth (A Wondrous Birth, No.7) [3:57]
Andrei ILYASHENKO We Should Choose to Love Silence (Concerto for the Nativity of Christ) [3:03]
Alexander GRETCHANINOV Now the Powers of Heaven, Op. 58, No.6 [5:08]
Pavel TCHESNOKOV Do Not Cast Me Off in My Old Age, Op. 40, No.5 [4:48]
Sergei RACHMANINOV Let Our Mouths Be Filled, Op. 31, No.18 [4:31]
Blessed Be the Name of the Lord, Op. 31, No.19 [0:46]
Alexander GRETCHANINOV Preserve, O Lord, for Many Years, Op. 79 [1:05]
Nikolai KEDROV Sr Our Father [2:57]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY Come, Let Us Worship, Op. 41, No.3 [2:37]