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Benedict SHEEHAN (b. 1980)
Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom (2018) [75:33]
Timothy Parsons (countertenor); Michael Hawes – Priest (baritone); Jason Thoms – Deacon (bass)
The Saint Tikhon Choir / Benedict Sheehan
rec. May 2019, St Stephen’s Pro-Cathedral, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, USA
Blu-ray also includes films of:
Cherubic Hymn [8:05]
Communion Hymn [7:14]
rec live 26 May 2019
Complete Liturgy (Liturgical premiere) [143:31]
rec. live 20 October 2019, St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral, Washington D.C.
English texts included
Blu-ray audio formats: 2.0 DTS-HD MA Stereo 24BIT/192kHz; 5.1 DTS-HD MA surround sound. DSD
Reviewed in stereo CAPPELLA RECORDS CR421 CD/BD-A [CD 75:33; Blu-ray 219:04]
In 2015 the American composer, Benedict Sheehan received a commission from the PaTRAM Institute to compose a new musical score for the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom. The commission specified that the setting had to be in English but in the “Russian style”. On this recording he conducts The Saint Tikhon Choir, a professional ensemble which he founded in 2015. The choir comprises 38 singers (9/11/8/10).
It’s worth saying at the outset exactly what you get in this generous package. There’s an audio recording of the music, made under studio conditions; that’s included on both the CD and the Pure Audio Blu-ray. In addition, the versatility and capacity of the Blu-ray disc has been harnessed to include filmed performances of two of the movements from the Liturgy. These are taken from the world premiere performance of the Liturgy as a concert work two days before the recording sessions. Furthermore, the Blu-ray contains a film of the entire liturgy. This film was made on the occasion of the first liturgical performance of the music. That film is considerably longer than the musical performance on the audio recording. That’s because we get the entire service, enabling us to witness the elaborate and devout Orthodox ritual. I think I’m correct in saying that there’s more music on the film as compared with the audio recording. For example, there’s a considerable amount of singing while the celebrant, the Primate of the Orthodox Church of America, makes his solemn entrance and dons his vestments. All this takes place before the singing of the Great Litany, which is the opening track on the audio recording. I assume that the extra music heard on the film is all by Benedict Sheehan, though the differences between what is heard on the audio recording and in the service itself aren’t made clear in the otherwise comprehensive documentation.
The audio recording brings us 17 movements. A number of them, such as The Great Litany or The Litany of Supplication consist of chanted intercessions followed by choral responses. In case you fear such movements might be a bit repetitive let me hasten to reassure you that this is not the case. Sheehan subtly varies both the cantor’s music and the responses so as to maintain interest. Furthermore, in this performance the litanies are expertly paced so that there’s an excellent flow between intercessions and responses. It helps too that the two members of the choir who sing the cantor roles - Michael Hawes as the Priest and Jason Thoms as Deacon – are excellent. Hawes has the most to do and he’s compelling.
Sheehan’s music is very beautiful and inventive. On the back of the jewel case we are told that his music reflects the Russian Orthodox tradition – which is undoubtedly true - and in addition the music is “Reminiscent of medieval Eastern chant, minimalism, American folk singing, and the high tradition of Western church music”. I’m bound to say I don’t immediately hear the influences of minimalism and folk singing – though that’s not to say they’re absent. The reason I include that quote is to illustrate that Sheehan, while thoroughly respectful of the Orthodox tradition, has not been fettered by it. Rather, he has absorbed other influences and, as a composer, has been very much his own man. In his note about the music Sheehan tells us that the whole work springs from a single pentatonic motif which recurs in various guises throughout, conferring musical unity. The motif is heard for the first time in the first movement, Great Litany, as the choir sings it expansively to the word ‘Amen’ (tr1, 0:26 - 0:44). I must admit that I don’t perceive the motif consistently throughout the score but I’m sure that will come with greater familiarity.
Sheehan’s Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom is best heard as an uninterrupted sequence; such listening does full justice to his conception. However, if I were asked to recommend one movement for a prospective listener to hear as a sampler, I would unhesitatingly propose the ninth movement, Cherubic Hymn. This is a hypnotically beautiful creation. The music is hushed and slow-moving, allowing the luxuriant harmonies and lovely part-writing to unfold expansively. I could easily see this piece becoming a standalone concert item. Mind you, it would require an expert choir to do it justice for the music clearly requires expert breath control and superb discipline. Fortunately, Sheehan’s choir is ideally equipped for the assignment and they give a fantastic, dedicated performance. The music is radiant, especially at around 3:35. Eventually, at 5:40, the pace is increased somewhat and the volume grows louder as the choir sings ‘that we may receive the King of all’. Then the music subsides during the closing ‘Alleluias’; these are the alleluias of angels. Try this movement and I predict you’ll be hooked.
Though this is my favourite movement in the work the level of invention and musical dedication is consistently high throughout. I mentioned earlier the seamless delivery of the exchanges between cantor and choir in several movements. A good example of this occurs in movement 11, the Anaphora. But what is most remarkable about this movement is the way the choir’s ‘Holy, holy, holy’ comes as the aural equivalent of a burst of light (tr 11, 3:18). Prior to this outburst, Michael Hawes as the Priest prepares us superbly for that moment by shifting gear, as it were, as his chant becomes an ecstatic exclamation. Later in the same movement comes an example of how Sheehan has adapted cantorial chant. When the Priest sings ‘Take, eat: This is my Body’ his music evolves from chant into a much more expressive vocal line.
There’s one movement which features a soloist other than the two cantors: the setting of Psalm 148 which functions as the Communion Hymn. Here, much of the psalm is declaimed by an alto soloist from within the choir. The soloist is countertenor Timothy Parsons. The sound of his voice is very different from much of what we’ve heard so far in the Liturgy and the contrast is beneficial. His timbre cuts through the rest of the choir and I think it’s a masterstroke on Sheehan’s part to use the alto voice in just one movement. (In the film of the liturgical performance another
countertenor, Eric Brenner, sings the part.)
Benedict Sheehan’s music is wonderful but so too is the performance by The Saint Tikhon Choir. The singers make a fantastic sound which consistently delights the ear. As a group they are capable of outbursts of great fervour – the last two movements, for example, contain joyful, even forthright music – and in such passages the choir’s singing is genuinely exciting. On the other hand, they are just as adept at delighting the listener with firm-bodied soft singing. The blend is excellent and I particularly appreciate the fullness of the bass sound; though we’re not told explicitly, I feel sure that the bass section must include a few Octavists. If you want an example of the satisfying deep bass sound, look no further than towards the end of the Third Antiphon, The Beatitudes, when the choir sings ‘Blessed are you when men shall revile you’. Sheehan also often exploits the top range of his soprano section to excellent effect and if you listen to the ‘Amen’ at the end of movement 14, ‘One is Holy’, you’ll hear a choice example of the way in which the full compass of the choir, from top sopranos right down to the lowest basses, is deployed. I should also add that the choir’s diction is very good and that of the two cantor soloists is exemplary.
I’ve found listening to this setting of Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom an enriching experience. The music is very fine and seems to me to fit the words like a glove. The standard of performance is superb and makes me keen to hear more of this gifted choir and conductor.
The cause of both music and singers is helped immeasurably by the wonderful recorded sound which is the work of Blanton Alspaugh and his colleagues at Soundmirror. In my experience, this company’s involvement in a recording is a guarantee of high-quality sound. That’s the case here; the recording is warm yet detailed and it allows the choral sound to bloom in the natural resonance of St Stephen’s Pro-Cathedral without ever losing focus. I did most of my listening using the Blu-ray audio disc with its 2.0 stereo option but I sampled the CD sufficiently to confirm that anyone listening through this medium will also get excellent results. The video aspect of the release is the work of Orthodox 360; their visual and aural presentation is good. The documentation, which includes an essay by the composer, is good, albeit the font used in the booklet is on the small side for my comfort.
Anyone interested in the music of the Orthodox church should investigate this high-quality release to discover how a composer of today is successfully building on and respecting the tradition of the past while renewing and expanding that tradition for our times.