Lost Voices of Hagia Sophia
Medieval Byzantine Chant sung in the virtual acoustics of Hagia Sophia
Cappella Romana/Alexander Lingas
Documentary film: ‘The Voice of Hagia Sophia [23:43]
rec. 2016, Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA), Stanford, USA
Texts and English translations included
Audio options: 2.0 LPCM Stereo 24bit/48kHz; 5.1 DTS-HD MA24bit/48kHz; Dolby ATMOS 24/48kHz; Audio-3D 24/48kHz
CAPPELLA ROMANA CR420 [CD: 76:50 & Blu-ray: 80 mins]
In nearly twenty years of reviewing for MusicWeb International I can safely say I have never reviewed a recording of medieval Byzantine chant. However, the opportunity to experience what appeared to be a rather remarkable recording venture was too good to miss, even if it took me out of my musical comfort zone.
I first encountered the work of Cappella Romana a few years ago when I reviewed their outstanding recording of Passion Week by Maximilian Steinberg. However, I was aware then that Steinberg’s music was not wholly typical of the group’s repertoire, at least in terms of recordings. This group of professional singers, based in Portland, Oregon, specializes in performing medieval Byzantine chant as well as Greek and Russian Orthodox choral works, though they also embrace contemporary music. To the best of my knowledge, their previous recordings have been “conventional” studio-based productions but this new release, in its technological ambitions, goes way beyond the conventional
I need first of all to make reference to the Hagia Sophia, the remarkable building in Istanbul which is the fons et origo
of this project; in doing so I draw on the essay in the booklet by Bissera
Pentcheva, a Professor of Art History at Stanford University. Hagia Sophia
was constructed between 532 and 537AD as a Christian cathedral. Under the
Ottoman Empire it was converted into a mosque in 1453. It was repurposed as
a museum in 1935 as Turkey’s more secular era began under Mustafa Kemal
Atatürk. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. As of this month - July
2020 - Turkey’s government has made the decision that the building will
revert to being a mosque once more, taking effect very soon. The building itself is truly vast. Bissera Pentcheva tells us that it can accommodate over 16,000 people. The dome rises 56.6 metres and has a maximum diameter of 31.87 metres. The interior of the nave has a volume of 255,800 cubic metres and is lavishly decorated in marble. These incredible dimensions and the building materials used means that Hagia Sophia possesses an amazingly reverberant acoustic: the reverberation can last for up to twelve seconds.
Alexander Lingas has authored a detailed essay on the musical background. In it he explains that during the period when Christian worship flourished in Hagia Sophia there was a very large staff of ministers attached to the church, including an elite choir of 25 singers. Though ordained ministers were called upon to sing during the liturgies – and here their contributions are replicated by solo voices from among Cappella Romana – much of what we hear Lingas’s singers perform in this programme is, I presume, music that would have been sung by the elite choir, although the liturgy also provided for congregational responses at times. One feature of the music which came as a surprise to me is the involvement of some female voices. I had expected an all-male choir but Lingas points out that high voices – children, women and eunuchs – were regularly involved in the singing at Hagia Sophia.
For this recording, Cappella Romana, working in collaboration with the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics at Stanford University (CCRMA), have sought to replicate the experience of singing ancient Byzantine liturgical music in the spacious acoustic of Hagia Sophia. Musical performances are no longer permitted there but the very clever people at CCRMA, led by Professor Jonathan Abel, came up with an ingenious way of capturing the Hagia Sophia acoustic itself and then simulating and integrating it into this recording. Essentially, as I understand it, during a visit to Hagia Sophia in 2011, Prof Pentcheva was allowed to make a brief recording of the building’s acoustic. She did this by attaching to her ears two small and very sensitive microphones. A balloon was then released above her and was burst, with the reverberating sound of the ‘pop’ recorded by the microphones. Four such recordings were made – nothing more than that was permitted – and, as I read in the press material, “The sound of the balloon, bouncing off the interior of the Hagia Sophia and back to microphones was used to create a ‘map’ of the interior space, all the dimensions, its size and shape.” Prof. Abel and his colleagues undertook lengthy and painstaking modelling and research to analyze the sound of the building and they used their knowledge of its layout to model how the sound might be experienced if singers sang from various parts of the interior.
I freely confess that I’m a layman in such matters but the processes that led to this recording – which was preceded by some live performances – are described in detail in the extensive booklet. At the end of this review I have provided a link to the relevant section of the Cappella Romana website, where readers can find more information.
The Blu-ray disc includes a 24-minute documentary film about how all this was done. It’s hosted by Bissera Pentcheva and I would strongly recommend you to watch the film before listening to the music. The film also gives you an idea of the scale and magnificence of Hagia Sophia itself.
So, what do the results sound like? I should start by saying that I have principally used the Blu-ray disc for my listening, though I have sampled the CD sufficiently to be able to assert that the results in that medium are also highly impressive – though the Blu-ray stereo layer offers stunning sound. Normally, when I review, I listen through loudspeakers but, on this occasion, I’ve also done a fair bit of listening through headphones. Whichever medium I used, the results are astounding. When I listened through my speakers the sound opened up spaciously in front of me, giving a fine sense of the acoustic. Using headphones, one is drawn into and immersed in the performances to quite an unusual degree.
The music itself is astonishing. It reflects, I think, the geographical positioning of the city of Istanbul at the crossroads between Europe and the Middle East, in that the music has strong kinship with the music of the Russian and Greek Orthodox churches. Yet this is amply seasoned with the kind of melismatic singing techniques that one associates with the music of the Middle East; in particular, the solo passages which, in a liturgy would be sung by a priest or deacon, show the influence of ululation, such as one might hear from a muezzin’s call to prayer. Most of the music is associated with various liturgies celebrated on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, which falls on 14 September.
In the first track, which is part of the liturgy of Vespers for that Feast, I was struck at once by the wonderful overlapping sonorities of the choir. There’s a real depth and richness to the choral sound and here, as elsewhere, the fabulously deep and resonant basses anchor the choir’s sound superbly. Despite the resonance, the singers still achieve clarity. The following track is an abridged version of Psalm 140. The music to which it is sung is characterised by robust solemnity.
There follow items from the office of Orthros (Matins). The members of Cappella Romana bring terrific fervour to both the solo sections and the choral passages in the Small litany and Old Kalophonic Antiphon. They move seamlessly into the Stichologia, one of several instances in which female voices are included. The Ode 4 of the Canon of the Precious Cross brings this sub-section of the programme to a remarkable conclusion. Verses are sung alternately by two choirs against a deep bass drone; the chant is purposeful and declamatory. The sound that the choir makes within the simulated acoustic is absolutely compelling and this is one of several occasions where, at the very end of the piece, the listener gets a real appreciation of the reverberation of the Hagia Sophia acoustic.
The next section contains music from the Ceremony of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. The Kontakion: “Lifted Up on the Cross”, is deeply impressive. The chant is slow-moving and imposing with, once again, a powerful bass drone underneath. The depth and richness of the choral sound makes a strong impact; it’s very striking on CD but makes an even greater mark when heard via the Blu-ray. The following Sticheron, for the Adoration of the Cross, is also taken at a slow-moving tempo, as is all of the music on the disc. However, despite the broad approach adopted by Alexander Lingas there’s a palpable sense of urgency which is entirely appropriate for a text which summons the faithful to worship the Cross.
The remaining musical items come from the Divine Liturgy which, on 14 September, would have followed immediately after the Ceremony of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. In the Troparion “Your Cross we Worship”, the members of Cappella Romana are divided into two choirs. One choir, the smaller ensemble, represents the clergy, situated in the sanctuary, while the other choir represents the singers positioned in the nave; the latter have the more elaborate music. In this performance the two choirs are clearly differentiated. The music sung by the nave choir is magisterial. The Cherubic Hymn, which concludes the CD, is superb. Listen in particular to the way the music gradually ascends until it reaches the tenor register (track 12, 6:09) at which point the higher pitch adds even more to the fervour of the music and performance. I’m inclined to think that this piece, and the performance it receives, has more impact than anything else on the disc; it certainly grabbed my attention.
The greater capacity of the Blu-ray disc means that in addition to the documentary film it can accommodate an extra musical item: a short but ardent Communion Verse.
I can imagine that some people may be suspicious of the concept behind this disc, regarding it as ‘audio trickery’. I would respectfully but firmly disagree. In the first place, the project has been put together by eminent academics and very serious musicians. Furthermore, the results seem to me to be a genuine and carefully thought-out attempt to recapture a sound which, sadly, no one is likely to hear again. Given the current and planned future use of Hagia Sophia it seems inconceivable that Orthodox Christian music will ever again resound in the building’s spacious acoustic as it once did for many centuries. This is a sympathetic and academically informed attempt to recreate the sound of the music in the acoustic of the building which used to host it. So, this is a careful and respectful example of musicological and acoustical practical research but the project is anything but a dry exercise. Cappella Romana and the Stanford acousticians have brought this music vividly to life and we hear it, as it wore, resounding across the centuries.
The documentation accompanying these discs is as comprehensive as you could wish. Three detailed essays describe the historical and religious background; the music itself and its place in the liturgy; and the technical steps by which the acoustic of Hagia Sophia was simulated and then combined with the voices of Cappella Romana. All the sung texts are provided together with an English translation. When the documentation is so excellent it seems churlish to complain, but the one drawback is that the sung texts are offered only in Greek. I can’t read that language, as will probably be the case with many other people who buy this package, and a transliteration really should have been provided. As it was, I often had difficulty in knowing exactly where I was in a particular item, especially because the printed font is quite small.
That’s the only blemish, though, on a magnificent production. The singing of Cappella Romana is superb from start to finish – the choir comprises 14 voices but often they make a huge sound, albeit without any suggestion of forcing the tone. The demonstration-class recorded sound enhances their performances greatly.
I can honestly say I’ve never experienced a disc like this but it’s a real ear-opener and a formidable achievement.
The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in Constantinople
From the Office of Sung Vespers
1.Final (Teleutaion) Antiphon before the Entrance [5:13]
(Ps. 98:9), Mode Plagal 2
2.Psalm 140 with Refrain (Kekragarion) [7:04]
From the Office of Sung Matins
3. Small litany and Old Kalophonic Antiphon, Mode Plagal 4. [9:31]
4. Choral stichologia (selected verses of Ps. 109–112, “Palaion”) [3:21]
5. Ode 4 of the Canon of the Precious Cross. [6:39]
From the Ceremony of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
Troparion: “Lord, save your people”
6. Syllabic melody [1:09]
7. Asmatikon melody [4:23]
8. Kontakion: “Lifted Up on the Cross,” short melody, Mode 4 [2:11]
9. Sticheron, for the Adoration of the Cross [6:02]
by Emperor Leo VI “The Wise”: “Come believers, let us worship the Life-giving Cross,” Mode 2
Selections from the Divine Liturgy
10. Troparion instead of the Trisagion “Your Cross we Worship” [12:57]
11. Prokeimenon: (Gradual, Ps. 98:9, 1-2), Barys Mode [5:23]
12. Asmatikon Cherubic Hymn [12:55]
On Blu-ray disc only
13. Communion Verse, “The Light of your Countenance,” Mode 4 [3:35]
Film, ‘The Voice of Hagia Sophia’ [23:43]
Directed, Edited, and Co-produced by Duygu Eruçman; Produced by Bissera V. Pentcheva
Cinematography by Meryem Yavuz, Michael Seely, and Ben Wu