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Georgy SVIRIDOV (1915-1998)
Hymns and Prayers
Introduction [7:23]
From the Old Testament [12:14]
The Nativity of Christ [14:58]
Christ’s Life on Earth [26:13]
After the Resurrection [17:56]
Ivanna Bondaruk (soprano), Yuliya Zuveya (mezzo-soprano), Roman (Podlubnyak), celibate deacon (tenor), Roman Pachashynsky (tenor), Nazar Yakobenchuk (baritone) Tarisiy (Mudrak), archdeacon (bass)
Credo Chamber Choir, Bogdan Plish, Conductor
rec. March-April 2014, Uspensky Cathedral of the Kyiv-Percherska Lavra.
First recording

In a recent review I implied that Toccata was principally concerned with producing discs of piano music and not much else and that they would probably not record an orchestral piece by a composer whose chamber music disc of theirs I was reviewing. In response I was politely but firmly corrected and I want to put that straight now and to that end have accepted several discs of theirs for review that cover several genres, including orchestral, chamber and song, and am very pleased to do so.

Toccata kindly sent the discs to me just before I set off for a momentous journey in my motor home to Russia in search of my ancestors who came to the UK in 1910 when my father was just 7 years old. It was therefore totally appropriate to play this disc as I crossed the Russian border at Narva, Estonia at 5 a.m., the dawn just breaking and with Sviridov’s magical music accompanying me on my drive to St Petersburg. When I say magical I mean it in the true sense of the word for I don’t know many other composers whose music can really make my spine tingle quite like his. My first encounter with his music came with his Poem in memory of Sergei Yesenin (the Russian poet and one time husband of dancer Isadora Duncan) and I have never forgotten the impact it had on me.

In a typical example of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, music like this was not just frowned upon during Soviet times but virtually banned and anyone writing music that smacked in any way of religious connotations was immediately suspect, so it is no surprise to learn that Sviridov lamented this situation in which a country where the choral traditions that were so pre-eminent declined to become almost non-existent, and that he sought to correct it. Whether he was motivated by any religious spirit or not is, it seems to me, irrelevant since this is a style of music that can be and is enjoyed by believers and atheists alike (I speak as one such).

While the word ‘otherworldly’ maybe overused it seems to me to be totally appropriate in music like this that seems to float above like an almost alien presence but one that produces a sense of inner calm that purges all the cares of the world from the listener. Less is definitely more in that the absence of any instrumental accompaniment makes for a much stronger and more powerful effect. The frequent device of having the lowest voices open a passage and then having the highest come in or vice versa makes for incredibly powerful contrasts and when Sviridov has a single soprano voice rise above them all it is truly spell-binding. It is a measure of the quality of writing that even if after each piece one is tempted to think nothing can compare to what you’ve just heard the next piece will prove to be equally impactful.

Two pieces form the introduction and the first, the short O Lord, save the pious sets the scene perfectly and if you are an admirer of unaccompanied singing right away you know you are in for a veritable treat throughout the disc. In this a lone baritone voice intones the opening before being joined by the rest of the choir and the second piece seems to grow out of it seamlessly. The Russian choral tradition is quite unique in its sound world, though the Ukrainian, Serbian and Bulgarian choirs are steeped in the same method, which is so very different from the ‘western’ tradition. Experts will perhaps disagree with the impression I get when I listen because I find that the difference between the two ‘schools’ lies principally in the way in which the ‘banks’ of singers are used, namely in this genre of choral singing high and low voices seem to be used to cut across each other and the differences in them are brought more sharply into focus as a result. That is obviously not always the case but even when the whole choir sings as an ensemble there is a special feel to it which marks out this tradition as being in considerable contrast to the choral singing we in Britain, for example, are more used to hearing. In addition for me there is more than a touch of melancholia about it which I find extremely attractive and I get the feeling that the voices are not just praising God but that there is a kind of shared experience embodied within the music that is immediately understood by the native listener. A particular favourite of mine is track 7 Having beheld a strange nativity which has some wonderfully evocative bass singing.

Religious or not one can hardly fail to be moved by the combination of Sviridov’s extremely powerful music and the amazing sounds of this Ukrainian choir, from the crystalline clarity of its sopranos to the thrillingly sonorous timbres of its basses which make for an unforgettable experience. It comes as no surprise to learn that it has won several major choral singing competitions throughout Europe, all of which were thoroughly deserved. I’m sure there will be few listeners who, once they have experienced the impact this music will undoubtedly have upon them, would disagree with the contention printed on the disc’s back cover that this collection, Sviridov’s final composition that he took a full ten years (1987-97) to complete, is “perhaps the most important Russian choral composition since the liturgies of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov”. This thrilling first recording is a real joy to experience. There is nothing more to be said; this music must be heard rather than read about!

Steve Arloff



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