Pavel CHESNOKOV (1877-1944) Teach Me Thy Statutes
PaTRAM Institute Male Choir/Vladimir Gorbik
Soloists: Mikhail Davydov (‘Blessed is the Man’)
Vladimir Krasov (‘The Great Doxology’)
rec. Church of the Apostle and Evangelist John the Theologian, Saratov Orthodox Theological Seminary, Russia, 2016
Texts in Russian (Cyrillic & transliterated) and English included. REFERENCE RECORDINGS FR-727 SACD [67:14]
There have been a few occasions when a disc of choral music has blown me away, and they are usually discs of Russian music, most recently Alfeyev’s St Matthew Passion (MEL CD10 02366), with its use of the oktavist or basso profundo, a singer who sings an octave below the usual bass range, giving this music a depth that you just don’t get in western choral traditions. This new disc of the choral music of Pavel Chesnokov, I am glad to say, is another such disc, with its use of the basso profundo anchoring what is an exhilarating and wonderful performance. This is not my first experience of the music of Chesnokov as his music featured on the first disc to have this effect on me, Basso Profundo from Old Russia (RUS 288 158), although on that disc his name is spelled Tchesnokov. I also had a copy of the Liturgy of SaintJohn Chrysostom sung by the Choir of Moscow Church of the Nativity of the Most Holy Mother of God on Essential Classical (89423158022). This is a wonderful work that uses a solo oktavist as a sort of cantor; the recording is a little reverberant, but the singing is very good indeed.
Chesnokov was born in Ivanovskoye, a town close to Moscow where his father was a choirmaster, and showed musical abilities from an early age. He entered the Moscow Synodal School of Church Singing, graduating in 1895 with a gold medal. He then directed various choirs in Moscow before entering Moscow Conservatory in 1913 to study music, where he was taught by Taneyev and Ippolitov-Ivanov. After the 1917 Revolution he directed the Moscow Academic Choral Kapella, which he may have also founded; he also worked as choirmaster at the Bolshoi. He died in 1944 of a heart attack brought on by malnutrition whilst waiting in the bread line.
The music has a rich sonority which is perfect for the sound you only get from Russian choirs; western choirs, and even other choirs from Slavonic traditions just don’t seem able to do this music justice. You need the deep bass sound, and that is abundant in this music, right from the opening piece, ‘Bless the Lord, O My Soul’, you know that this is a special recording, one which serves the timbre of these special musicians well. This is a beautiful setting of Psalm 103/104 from one of Chesnokov’s settings of the ‘All Night Vigil’, with all the Pieces recorded here representing music composed for these or the Divine Liturgy, which explains why probably his most famous piece, ‘Do not reject me in my old age’ Op. 40 No. 5, which has been described as a “concert, piece for choir and soloists”, has not been included on this disc of his most popular liturgical choral works.
All the pieces offered on this disc are highlights in their own way so to pick only a few to mention is difficult. However, ‘Blessed Art Thou, O Lord’, which is one of the longest tracks on the disc is eight minutes of sustained beauty, with the way in which the composer interweaves the various voices being a masterclass in choral writing. The following track, ‘Having Beheld the Resurrection of Christ’, is a wonderful evocation of the resurrection with its long concluding bass notes being quite spine-tingling. Perhaps the finest piece included here is ‘The Cherubic Hymn’, its long, subdued opening giving it the air of a truly devotional hymn, one that calls to the soul. In ‘The Great Doxology’, the opening cry of “Glory to God in the Highest” is exhilarating, before the choir is called upon to be more reflective in the middle section, a switch it makes with ease.
Whilst it is the soloists that steal the show on the Basso Profundo of Old Russia disc, here it is the choral use that wins out, with the Oktavists and basses underpinning the whole performance of the choir. For example, just listen to their sustained low notes in ‘A Mercy of Peace’ and ‘We Hymn Thee’; here they form the bass on which the melody is woven, and it is mesmerising, perhaps one of my favourite pieces on the whole disc. In fact, soloists are used sparingly here; but when they are, they shine, especially Mikhail Davydov in ‘Blessed is the Man’, with his wonderful bass baritone anchoring the whole piece.
This is an exceptionally good disc, one where the PaTRAM Institute Male choir is in beautiful form, this is a better recording than that of the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, one that lets the tone of the singers shine forth, this is due to the superior acoustic, making this the preferred disc of the two, although I do like the soloist in the Liturgy. This present disc is also the more varied, with the tracks from various works giving you a more rounded view of Chesnokov the composer that the 92 minutes and four tracks of the Liturgy does.
As already mentioned, the acoustic is very good, and this leads to a wonderful recording, one where the engineers have worked hard to achieve such a pleasing sound. The recorded sound of this disc is wonderful in stereo, however, listening to it in SACD 5.0 is recommended as you get a real sense of presence, as it places you at the heart, so to speak, of the performance. The recording is backed up by exemplary notes that introduce us to the choir and the composer, as well as detailed conductor notes from Vladimir Gorbik that give great insight into this music and its performance. The introduction mentions that this is the second disc of music by the PaTRAM Institute: try as I might I can not find the first, and on this evidence let us hope it is not their last. Stuart Sillitoe
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