Tikey ZES (b.1927) Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom [77:58]
Cappella Romana/Alexander Lingas
Douglas Schneider (organ)
rec. 2010, Agnes Flanagan Chapel, Lewis and Clark College, Portland, Oregon CAPPELLA ROMANA CR410-CD [77:58]
It’s not very likely that you have much Greek Orthodox sacred music on your shelves. The few famous Orthodox sacred works are Russian: the All-Night Vigils of Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky, for instance. The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom represents a tradition that has been going on longer than any and all western “classical” music. This is a setting of fourth-century Byzantine sacred masses, with the music composed in 1991.
Tikey Zes, a California-born composer, began directing Orthodox choirs in 1950 and commenced a study of Byzantine chant in the 1970s, making transcriptions and choral arrangements. The series of works presented here is a reflection of that background: though only a few of the pieces are based on pre-existing melodies, they are inspired by the medieval Byzantine tradition. Each long movement begins with a soloist chanting a text and the choir responding in more fluid melody. Indeed, you can sometimes hear the melodic ease and freedom of the twentieth century in the sounds of the full choir. Imagine if Poulenc had been Greek.
This music is meant to be used in services, and is certainly not meant to be sung all at once. Otherwise you’d be in church for a week. Listening to the disc in one sitting is, for a non-choral expert and non-Christian like me, a bit of a stretch. The situation is helped greatly by the Cappella Romana, a compelling choir of fourteen (on this disc) from the American west coast, who all seem to bring distinct personalities in addition to superb voices. Only the men get solos, but the golden-voiced sopranos make too attractive a sound, together, to be ignored.
So far as I can tell, the Greek enunciation of these Americans is superb, although sometimes by a mysterious illusion my ears tricked me into thinking I was listening to Spanish. Organist Douglas Schneider plays a small but critical part supporting the choir. Two real clergymen occasionally read spoken-word texts, which will add value for the Orthodox worshipper but maybe not for those most interested in the music itself. There’s an ample booklet describing the history of this musical style, setting down the full sung text in Greek and English, and outlining the life of Tikey Zes. The notes are so thorough they even name the architect who built the concert hall. Recorded sound is superb.
This music may or may not be for you. It’s superbly crafted and, intellectually, I was intrigued by the way Tikey Zes honours a 1600-year-old tradition without imitating it too slavishly. “The Communion of the Laity” stands out to me as a particular gem, maybe because its flowing, consoling melody is worthy of Zes’s great choral colleagues in other branches of Christianity, like Veljo Tormis and Morten Lauridsen. If you fall asleep in church, skip this album, but if the thought of Greek Orthodox service music excites you, this is an extraordinary introduction.