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Georgy SVIRIDOV (1915-1998)
Canticles and Prayers (Pesnopeniyai molitivi)(1980-97) [61:36]
The Red Easter (Paskha krasnaya) (1978) [3:30]
Latvian Radio Choir/Sigvards Klava
rec. 2018, St John’s Church, Riga, Latvia
Texts and translations included
ONDINE ODE1322-2 [65:06]

The present issue contains what amounts to Sviridov’s final work, the title of which is here translated as Canticles and Prayers; it remained incomplete at his death. The booklet note by Alexander Belonenko, Director of the Sviridov Institute provides some indication of the work’s somewhat tortuous conception. Given that the composer came late to sacred music, he planned and began various liturgical projects throughout the 1970s and 1980s; there was a cycle for Holy Week and a Mass both of which were started but never finished. By the early 1990s, and the initial rumblings of perestroika Sviridov, in his mind at least ,began to equate the collapse of the Soviet Union with the demise of ‘Holy Rus’ and considered a grand scheme to collate all the choruses, psalms and prayers he had composed for his earlier discarded projects into one massive concert work, with instruments. Ultimately he made a selection from these items, edited the texts (replacing some of the archaic Old Slavonic language) and settled on a flexible five-part structure. Four of these sections are included in the present reading – the original second part is completely omitted, while a couple of numbers from the fifth are also absent. The final item on this disc, Paskha krasnaya (here translated as Red Easter) is a separate work from 1978. In all there are 21 separate choruses included here. They add up to a most satisfying whole.

Previous issues from Ondine featuring this magnificent choir have deservedly garnered wonderful reviews; they include music by Vasks, Rachmaninov and Silvestrov. It will come as little surprise to readers that this Sviridov disc is equally special (although there is another recent recording of this work - in a slightly different guise – on Toccata Classics which I haven’t heard but I believe is also superb; my colleague Steve Arloff certainly thought so in his review.). As might be expected the Latvian Radio Choir under its renowned conductor Sigvards Kļava by no means present a full-on Russian sound here – vibrato is tangible but relatively restrained, the basses have depth but not cavernously so. They provide crystalline, nuanced accounts of these austerely beautiful pieces. Soloists, when called on, project model clarity and tact, the recording is supremely detailed and expertly balanced, the naturally warm acoustic of St John’s Church in Riga clothes the luxuriant choral sound in a luminous halo that falls just on the right side of intoxicating.

The parts of the cycle can be performed as discrete entities – Sviridov’s flexible structure allows for the order of items within each to be changed and for numbers to be omitted if required. The title of the first part has been translated as ‘The inexpressible miracle’; the plaintive, world-weary tenor solo that opens its brief first prayer (translated as ‘Lord, save the pious’) gives a good idea of the solo singing that crops up at points throughout the work – a light, never obtrusive vibrato, a fastidious commitment to the text and an emphasis on a glowing, beatific sound which perfectly complements the choir. The following ‘Holy God’ is a more substantial choral canticle (textually it equates to the Kyrie); it is serene, timeless and sad – it shimmers in this performance and again provides a marker for the stunning recording: the choral balance the Ondine engineers have achieved is outstanding.

It is churlish to identify ‘highlights’ but useful perhaps to recommend individual items for listeners to sample. The latent power of the choir is most evident in the extraordinary ‘Having beheld a strange nativity’ – the final item of what is described as Part II here (actually it’s Part III). The music is at first unassuming – a straightforward harmonic and melodic sequence. But the seemingly innocent structure erupts into ever increasing waves of fervent choral expression at the repeated word ‘Alleluia’; while the effect is unforgettable it doesn’t overwhelm. This coolness actually serves the music wonderfully. The choral control exhibited by the Latvians in the next item, the briefer ‘King of Glory’ is superbly contrasted with its two solo outbursts. The whole cycle concludes with the gorgeous Paskha krasnaya, an Easter anthem that Sviridov didn’t include in the cycle, which here acts as a pendant. In emotional terms at least, it literally brings us full circle. It gloriously entwines melismatic solos within its robust framework, its resolution being truly ecstatic in its reach.

As might be expected several of the individual items relate to the liturgy of Christmas or Holy Week but nothing is expressly ruled in or out. Emotionally, the spirit of the whole work seems to seek an accord between a nostalgic grief for what has passed, and an apprehension over the unforeseen fate of the motherland in the midst of enormous change. It is interesting to speculate about how Sviridov would have responded to the current, enthusiastic rapport between the Russian state and the Orthodox Church. While the original texts have been included, some of the translations appear to be strangely literal rather than idiomatic, a detail in the documentation that should not be allowed to distract from a magnificent disc. While Sviridov’s star suddenly seems to be burning ever more brightly, this issue represents another fine addition to the Latvian Radio Choir’s already impressive discography.

Richard Hanlon


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