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Blessed Art Thou Among Women
PaTRAM Institute Singers/Peter Jermihov
rec. 2018, St Alexander Nevsky Diocesan Cathedral, Howell, USA

The declared mission of the US-based PaTRAM Institute is “to cultivate and promote the beauty and spiritual depth of Russian Orthodox liturgical singing”, and to this end they have now released several commercial recordings on the Reference label. The latest of these (the booklet notes suggest it is their fourth, although I am only aware of two previous recordings from them, both reviewed by MusicWeb International), celebrates Mary, the Mother of God, through a selection of two dozen sacred settings composed over three centuries, ranging from Vasily Polikarpovich Titov (c1650-c1715) to Sergey Sergeivich Zheludkov (b.1989). Along the way we find some very familiar names, not only from the world of Russian Orthodox music (such as Pavel Chesnokov, Alexander Grechaninov and Nikolai Danilin) but from composers whose names are rather more familiar through their essentially secular music (Dmitri Bortnyansky, Vasily Kalinnikov and Nikolai Tcherepnin). And the big surprise and bonus for me is the appearance of the first of Rachmaninov’s three great works for the Orthodox liturgy, The Theotokos, Who Is Ever-Vigilant in Prayer.
Largely over-shadowed by the All-Night Vigil and the Liturgy of St John of Chrysostom, this takes the form of a three-section concerto for unaccompanied chorus composed when Rachmaninov was just 20. The first section includes some gorgeous harmonies, and as the music follows the text in moving from prayerful contemplation to a celebration of the “Mother of Life”, so the music becomes wonderfully life-affirming and shot through with glorious luminosity (beautifully conveyed in the soaring soprano line at 5:55). Hints of the composer’s mature style may be hard to find, but Peter Jermihov’s tremendously fulsome and informative booklet notes do not fight shy of suggesting they are there, as he describes the work as “a fully manifest masterpiece with all the essential elements of the mature composer’s style”.

Bortnyansky’s simple but effective setting of Beneath Thy Compassion gives us a wonderful taste of a fine choir supported by a powerful profundo bass, while a resonant burst of a genuinely Russian-sounding profundo bass (sung by the rather surprisingly named Glenn Miller) opens Zheludkov’s setting of Do Not Lament Me, O Mother. Emerging from the rich, luxuriant textures of the Magnification for the Icon “Joy of all the Sorrowful” by Nikolai Matveyev (1909-1992) a solo quartet (Alexandra Olsavsky, Lauren McAllister, Daniel Shirley and Michael Hawes) creates a wonderfully ethereal presence, while there is something deliciously angelic about the female voices which open With the Voice of the Archangel by Nikolai Tolstiakov (1883-1958). While much of this music exudes a profoundly prayerful atmosphere, gorgeously soaked up by this outstanding choir, it does occasionally burst into celebratory fire – as with the wonderfully joyous The Angel Cried Out (the angelic voice of soprano Fotina Namumenko glistening in this bright musical sunlight) by Boris Ledkovsky (1894-1975) – and in these moments Jermihov draws some truly brilliant singing from his forces.

It is difficult to read the title To Thee, the Victorious Leader in the context of early 20th century Russian music without imagining it as some Soviet-era homage to some murderous dictator. But the two settings of this text here – by Tolstiakov and Alexander Nikolsky (1874-1943) – have in common a brightness and open-hearted joyousness which immediately tells us this is no politically-inspired music but a genuine outburst of joy. While the text itself refers to Mary’s ability to “set us free from every calamity”, Jermihov points out that underlying the text is the Russian siege of Constantinople in 860, which was lifted when, with the help of Mary, the “evil” Russian invaders were driven away.

The recording itself is dedicated to the memory of Protopresbyter Valery Lukianov, and includes a favourite hymn of his – In the Flesh Thou Didst Fall Asleep - and his own son, Alexis Lukianov, intoning Chesnokov’s deeply moving Memory Eternal with such a powerful and resonant profundo at its lowest imaginable that I marvel that anybody could possibly make such a wonderful noise so deep down in their register. Frankly, this recording would be worth buying for this magical example of true profundo singing on its own, but, in their own way, every single track (including the opening burst of carillon bells from the St Alexander Nevsky Diocesan Cathedral’s bell-ringer, Peter Lukianov) is worth hearing.

Marc Rochester

Bells of St. Alexander Nevsky Diocesan Cathedral [2:01]
Bortnyansky: Today the Virgin Gives Birth [2:30]
Kastalsky: Today the Virgin Gives Birth [1:39]
Titov: O Virgin Unwedded [3:15]
Sviridov: A Hymn of Praise to the Mother of God [3:03]
Chesnokov: O Most Holy Theotokos, Save Us [3:35]
Zheludkov: Do Not Lament Me, O Mother[5:11]
Kalinnikov: Virgin Theotokos, Rejoice [1:13]
Tcherepnin: Virgin Theotokos, Rejoice [2:01]
Grechaninov: It Is Truly Meet [1:37]
Tcherepnin: It Is Truly Meet [2:58]
Kastalsky: Rejoice, O Queen [1:48]
Danilin: All of Creation Rejoices in Thee [4:34]
Chesnokov: Do Not Lament Me, O Mother [3:24]
Ledkovsky: The Angel Cried Out [4:36]
Ilyashenko: The Mystery of God from All Eternity [1:33]
Lvovsky: O Ye Apostles, Assembled Here [2:42]
Matveyev: Magnification for the Icon “Joy of All the Sorrowful” [3:26]
Tolstiakov: With the Voice of the Archangel [5:11]
Nikolsky: To Thee, the Victorious Leader [1:16]
Tolstiakov: To Thee, the Victorious Leader [1:44]
Bortnyansky: Beneath Thy Compassion [3:58]
Anon.: In the Flesh Thou Didst Fall Asleep (“Feofanovskoe”) [2:26]
Chesnokov: Memory Eternal [3:33]

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