RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Maximilian STEINBERG (1883-1946)
Passion Week, Op 13 (1923) [47:04]
Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Chant Arrangements for Holy Week [14:43]
Cappella Romana/Alexander Lingas
rec. 2014, St Stephen Catholic Church, Portland, Oregon
Russian texts (Cyrillic and transliterated) and English translations included
CAPPELLA ROMANA CR414-CD [61:57]
Quite often my pre-Easter listening is dominated by settings of the Passion Gospel, usually by Bach, and when a new recording of the St Matthew Passion arrived for review I expected that 2015 would follow the same pattern. However, the almost simultaneous arrival of this new disc by Cappella Romana prompted a change of routine and priorities, not least because it contained music that was completely new to me.
I have to admit that my knowledge of the music of Maximilian Steinberg is rather limited; the only music of his that I have encountered is his Second Symphony Op 8 (1909) and the Variations for Orchestra, Op 2 (1905), which Neeme Järvi and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra recorded for DG back in 1998 (review). Passion Week will probably be unfamiliar to most collectors so I think it’s appropriate to supply some background and here I’m indebted to the comprehensive booklet essay by Alexander Lingas.
Steinberg was a Lithuanian, born into a Jewish family who lived in Vilnius. He pursued his education in St Petersburg where he studied simultaneously in the Faculty of Natural Sciences at the University and also at the Conservatoire. Among his teachers at the Conservatoire was Rimsky-Korsakov, whose daughter Steinberg married in 1908. Steinberg remained in Russia after the Revolution, occupying various senior posts in the Conservatory in St Petersburg, later Leningrad. Lingas mentions that Steinberg’s marriage was in the Orthodox Church to which he converted.
It would appear from the notes that Steinberg did not compose any liturgical music before Passion Week. By the time he came to write this work the Stalin regime had begun to make life extremely difficult for the Orthodox Church. By the time that it was completed an almost-complete ban on the performance of Orthodox music had come into force in the Soviet Union. Life became even harder for the Orthodox Church thereafter and there was no chance of a performance of Passion Week. Indeed, it seems Steinberg very wisely kept his head down as far as liturgical music was concerned. All was not entirely lost, however. In the 1920s Steinberg had been allowed to make some trips outside the Soviet Union and as a result of these visits some of his music was published by a Parisian publishing house. In 1927 that firm published Passion Week with the texts in Church Slavonic, Latin and English. A copy of this score, which is now a very rare edition, came into the possession of the Russian-American conductor Igor Buketoff (1915-2001), to whose memory this recording is dedicated. At Buketoff’s prompting his niece, Tamara Skvir and her husband, Very Rev. Daniel Skvir brought the music to the attention of Alexander Lingas. He edited the score and conducted Cappella Romana in what is thought to have been the first performance of the work in April 2014. Thus, some ninety years after it was written was Passion Week first heard and the same artists have now made its first recording.
Passion Week consists of eleven separate movements for unaccompanied choir. These are settings of hymns from the Orthodox services of Holy Week; these are sung in Church Slavonic. The first three hymns are from the “Bridegroom” Orthros of Great Monday to Great Wednesday. In these, as the title suggests, much is made of the image of Christ as a bridegroom. There follow three pieces from two different liturgies of Great Thursday, two Great Friday hymns and, to conclude, three hymns from Great Saturday liturgies, the last two of which are from the Vespers for that day, which is the Easter Vigil. The texts to all of these hymns are full of very powerful, prayerful imagery and Steinberg responds to the words magnificently in music that seems to me to be fully respectful of the Russian Orthodox musical tradition but which also develops that tradition.
It’s worth mentioning at this point, I think, the Passion Week by Alexander Grechaninov which was written in 1912 and to which Alexander Lingas says Steinberg’s work is ‘indebted for its form’. The two composers set several of the same texts but the musical response is rather different. I know the Grechaninov work through the magnificent recording conducted by Charles Bruffy (review) and the impression I have is that Grechaninov’s music, though deeply expressive and very beautiful, is more conservative harmonically than Steinberg’s and that Steinberg’s writing is also more polyphonically complex. I’m not for one moment suggesting that one work is “better” than the other – that would be as crass a statement as it would be unfair – but it’s interesting to compare two differing responses within the Orthodox tradition. Most of Steinberg’s settings are based on traditional Znamenny chants but there is also one piece based on a Kievan chant while another is founded on a Bulgarian chant. The eighth piece, ‘The Wise Thief’, is an original composition.
Often when a review disc arrives thorough the post I’m unable to resist playing just a few minutes of it to get an initial impression, especially if the music is new to me. I did this with this disc but found that I was hooked and I listened straight through the Steinberg work. I was struck forcefully by the sheer beauty of the music – and by the excellence of the performance. So, for example, the very first piece contains verses, sonorously sung by a bass singer, as the Celebrant. These verses are interspersed with choral ‘Alleluias’ in varied and luxuriant scorings. This is followed by ‘Behold, the Bridegroom comes’ in which the chant is richly harmonised. Already, in these first two numbers, Steinberg evidences great assurance in both his vocal writing and also his understanding of and empathy with the Orthodox idiom.
I love the gentle music at the start of the third movement, ‘Your bridal chamber’. Here the textures are luminous and very delicate while the harmonies are beautiful. ‘When the glorious disciples’, which comes next, is initially more forthright as befits a text that treats of the betrayal by Judas but the music becomes prayerful at the end. The seventh movement, ‘The noble Joseph’, tells of Joseph of Arimathea taking the body of Christ down from the cross. Naturally, the music is sorrowful, yet the sorrow is dignified in this intense and devotional setting. The ninth movement, ‘Do not weep for Me, Mother’ includes a fervent tenor solo in the opening pages. This is followed by a more extended piece, ‘Arise, O God’, which has a strong refrain proclaiming the power of the Resurrection. The intervening verses are all ecstatic yet in different ways. Finally comes an extended setting of the Paschal Vigil hymn, ‘Let all mortal flesh keep silence’. This, I think, contains the finest music of all. The piece is prayerful and moving and the sonorous ‘Alleluias’ at the end bring the piece and the cycle to a magnificent conclusion.
Passion Week is a remarkable work that contains intensely beautiful music and I was gripped and moved by it. The performance is superb. Cappella Romana is a specialist professional choir, based in the Pacific Northwest of the USA and they bring great expertise to this music. The choir numbers 26 on this recording (6/6/6/8). Their tone has a really satisfying depth to it and when required they are capable of delivering powerful, sonorous climaxes yet they are just as adept in producing singing of great delicacy and finesse. The score includes a number of solos and these are all taken expertly by members of the choir. It is readily apparent that Alexander Lingas, who is deeply immersed in this musical genre, has trained them with great thoroughness and in conducting them he draws out performances of no little feeling and natural authority.
To complete the programme Lingas and his choir perform five Chants by Steinberg’s teacher and father-in-law, Rimsky-Korsakov. All five texts were also set by Steinberg in Passion Week. The Rimsky settings are taken from two collections of his published chant settings, one dating from 1886 and the other a posthumous collection published in 1914. These are much simpler settings than Steinberg’s and heard side by side I concluded that the Steinberg pieces are more original in their ideas and more adventurous in their harmonic language. That said, the Rimsky pieces are direct in expression and they strike me as effective and devotional. I particularly admired Rimsky’s beautiful and eloquent setting of ‘Your bridal chamber’. These pieces make a good appendix to the Steinberg work.
It’s Steinberg’s Passion Week, though, that has the greatest claim on the attention of collectors. I’d go so far as to say that it’s a major discovery. Anyone who responds to a work such as Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil will find this a very rewarding piece. I don’t think that Steinberg’s piece is as memorable in its melodic material as Rachmaninov’s masterpiece but that may well be because I’m much more familiar with the Rachmaninov. I have no hesitation in saying, however, that Passion Week is one of the finest and most moving Orthodox settings that I’ve encountered and I’ve been excited by getting to know it. It’s particularly pleasing that this music should receive its first recording from such a fine choir: Cappella Romana have done Steinberg proud.
Every aspect of the presentation of this release is first rate. The recording is excellent. The acoustic of St Stephen Catholic Church is warm and sympathetic and the engineers have conveyed the right amount of natural resonance without letting the sound of the choir become diffuse in any way. The singers are nicely balanced and lots of detail registers. There’s a fine dynamic range and the climaxes open up in a very satisfying way. The booklet is excellent, not least for the absorbing essay about the music by Alexander Lingas.
More information about Cappella Romana and their previous recordings is available on their website.
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