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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

John Quinn made this a Recording of the Month and his review is filled not only with praise, but also gives plenty of background information to Maximilian Steinberg and the Passion Week. The booklet notes for this release are a real education, and account for the mixture of tradition and eclecticism in Steinberg’s piece. The best known work in the so-called “New Direction” in Russian Orthodox liturgical music of this period is Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil, and while this movement sought to move away from European influences which emerged in the18th century there are whiffs of all kinds of choral sources in these early 20th century examples.

It is hard to imagine the turmoil surrounding conflict and persecution between the Communist state and the Church in this period, and even more so on hearing this tender devotional music floating from your speakers. Steinberg’s melodic material is of course based on traditional chant, but his harmonisations are at times delectably juicy. He doesn’t go in much for dissonance, but a rich spread of voice parts and added notes create moments which might lead you to think of all kinds of associations, from Herbert Howells to Arvo Pärt or even Eric Whitacre. As for the performance, right from the opening solo for the Alleluia, which has a quality of overtone singing which instantly conjures a spell of ancient ritual, you know you are in for a special experience. The recording itself has a special atmosphere, but it is of course the impeccable sound and musicianship of Cappella Romana that carries us on Steinberg’s carpet of spiritual beauty from beginning to end.

The power of this stunning performance is that it simultaneously brings to life a masterpiece in whose sounds you can bathe with eternal opulence, and also restores a liturgical and spiritual monument that deserves a permanent place and wide use in its intended context and beyond. I would agree that it doesn’t topple Rachmaninov’s Opus 37 from its pre-eminent position in this genre, but if you ask me the one enhances the other.

As does Rimsky-Korsakov’s Chants for Holy Week, which is a less ambitious sounding collection of settings but which nonetheless inhabit the same world of sublime devotional singing as the Passion Week. Indeed, Steinberg’s chosen texts overlap with those used by his father-in-law, and the coupling is perfect. No-one need hesitate in acquiring this recording. It’s one of those all too rare releases which you know will stay with you forever.

Dominy Clements

Previous review: John Quinn (Recording of the Month)


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