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More Honourable than the Cherubim
PaTRAM Institute Male Choir/Vladimir Gorbik
rec. August 2019, Church of the St Nicholas Monastery, Saratov, Russia. DSD
Booklet includes sung texts and translations (Cyrillic & English)

It’s just over three years ago that I had the ear-opening experience of reviewing a disc by Vladimir Gorbik and the PaTRAM Institute Male Choir. That was a recording of liturgical music by Pavel Chesnokov, entitled Teach Me Thy Statutes (review). Since then, two other PaTRAM recordings have come my way, though these featured a mixed voice choir and were not conducted by Gorbik. Those two discs maintained very high artistic standards, even if they didn’t quite match the impact of that exceptional Chesnokov recording (review ~ review).

Now, in what I think is their first Chandos release, Gorbik and the PaTRAM Institute Male Choir return with a mixed programme of liturgical pieces by a roster of composers. They have gone back to Saratov but to a different recording location – the Chesnokov recording was made in the Church of the Apostle and Evangelist John the Theologian, Saratov Orthodox Theological Seminary. Once again, the technical side of the project was in the hands of Blanton Alspaugh and the engineering wizards from Soundmirror Inc. In one respect, however, this latest recording is on a much bigger scale than the Chesnokov project. For Teach Me Thy Statutes Gorbik had a choir comprising 21 tenors, 9 baritones, 7 basses and five Octavists. This time the choir has been expanded to 55 singers, drawn from five different countries. There are now 25 tenors, 11 baritones (plus the soloist, Mikhail Davydov, who also appeared on the Chesnokov disc), 10 basses and no fewer than nine Octavists. Having Octavists in such luxuriant numbers gives a fabulously deep foundation to the choral sound. In fact, as I listened to these pieces, though I was seriously impressed by the full sound of the choir, time and again it was the high tenor lines – fearlessly and accurately negotiated – and the cavernous sound of the Octavists that especially caught my ear.

The programme consists of settings of Orthodox texts in praise of Mary, the mother of God – the Theotokos; hence the title of the disc. The selected pieces seem to me to be choice examples of Orthodox liturgical music, many of them are the work of ‘New Direction’ composers.

Making a purely subjective choice, pride of place for me goes to the items by Pavel Chesnokov. He is represented by five pieces, four of which come from his cycle To the Most Holy Sovereign Lady, Op 43. Based on the quality of these excerpts, I should very much like to hear the full cycle. ‘O Theotokos, We Shall Never Cease Proclaiming’ is an excellent example of the vocal compass of this ensemble. The first tenors are very fervent - often singing for extended periods in their topmost register – while the bass foundation is superbly firm. ‘Let Us Pray to the Most Holy Theotokos’ is a wonderfully expansive setting. This is one of the two pieces that features baritone soloist Mikhail Davydov. He’s heard to even better advantage in Chesnokov’s ‘Revealing to Thee the Pre-eternal Counsel’. This text tells of the Annunciation and Davydov is called upon to sing the words spoken to Mary by the Angel Gabriel.

It’s very interesting to hear Rachmaninoff’s ‘The Theotokos, Who Is Ever-vigilant in Prayer’. He was only 18 when he wrote this Sacred Concerto; it’s his first sacred composition. The piece falls into several sections, broadly adopting a slow-fast structure. I particularly liked the gravity of the opening, though the urgency of the quicker episodes is also impressive. There may not be the mastery of the All-Night Vigil here but it’s still a precocious achievement. This disc was originally envisaged as an all-Gretchaninoff programme but, for reasons explained in the booklet, the project took a new direction; perhaps the Gretchaninoff programme will come in due course. The piece by Gretchaninoff that has made it into the programme is a good one: ‘Let us Hasten with Fervour’ is especially striking towards the end where the closing supplication (‘Turn not thy servants away empty’) is set to most affecting music.

Elsewhere, Trubachov’s ‘Troparion to the ‘Donskoy’ Icon of the Theotokos’ is a fine piece. The composer deploys an impressive range of vocal colours and makes very good use of a wide vocal compass in his choral writing. Degtiariov’s ‘At Thy Deathless Dormition’ comes from a much earlier age; we learn from the notes that this music was influenced by the Western European baroque and I certainly got that flavour from what I heard.

There are three settings of the same text, ‘It Is Truly Meet’, and I made a point of playing them in sequence in order to compare and contract them. They’re all very different. The Dinev setting makes a really impressive, spacious opening to the programme. The version attributed to Tsar Feodor Alekseyevich is much simpler in tone; the music is fervent and homophonic and makes a good impression. It’s rather more urgent in nature than the Dinev setting and so, too, is the piece by Shvedov, which is placed near the end of the programme. The very last item we hear is Uvarov’s ‘The Angel Cried Out’; this strongly affirmative music is a fine conclusion to the programme.

Though I haven’t mentioned every item on the programme, each piece is very good. The music is sung magnificently by the PaTRAM singers. My goodness, this is an accomplished ensemble! The sound is wonderfully rich and has terrific depth and body to it. Discipline is equally spectacular and I admired enormously the great range of dynamics. The earlier Teach Me Thy Statutes disc demonstrated what a splendid choir trainer and conductor Vladimir Gorbik; this new recording burnishes his reputation still further.

The choir has been recorded in sound of stunning depth and realism. The singers themselves make an imposingly sonorous sound, whether singing softly or full out. However, Blanton Alspaugh and his Soundmirror colleagues have recorded them with great impact and have then gone further. They have enhanced the vocal sound by capturing the acoustic of the St Nicholas Monastery Church superbly and have used it to enrich the music by surrounding it with a halo of resonance. Yet the resonance has been ‘tamed’ through shrewd microphone placement so that the sound is never diffuse or fuzzy; clarity has been achieved, as has warmth and presence. Earlier, I referred to the Soundmirror guys as engineering wizards: they’ve cast a really potent spell this time; sonically, this is a fabulous recording. (I listened to this SACD in stereo; I should imagine that those listeners who are equipped for surround sound will achieve even more exciting, immersive results.)

The Chandos booklet is in English and Russian – a clear indication of where it’s thought the markets for this disc will be. It’s a comprehensive booklet and I welcome the inclusion of transliterated texts also. Unfortunately, the font is very small, making the booklet something of a trial to read.

This is a magnificent album and it will certainly feature strongly in my thoughts when we’re asked to nominate our Recordings of the Year for 2021.

John Quinn

Previous review: Dan Morgan (Recording of the month)

Petar Konstantinov DINEV (1889-1980)
1. It Is Truly Meet [2:53]
Pavel Grigorievich CHESNOKOV (1877-1944)
2. O Theotokos, We Shall Never Cease Proclaiming [3:13]
No. 4 from To the Most Holy Sovereign Lady, Op. 43 (c. 1913)
Alexander Tikhonovich GRETCHANINOFF (1864-1956)
3. Let us Hasten with Fervour [5:56]
Sacred Concerto from Liturgy No. 2, Op. 29 (1902)
Bulgarian Chant
4. O Thou Joy of All the Sorrowful, arr. Mikhail Mikhailovich Popov-Platonov [3:06]
Pavel Grigorievich CHESNOKOV
5. Let Us Pray to the Most Holy Theotokos* [3:55]
No. 1 from To the Most Holy Sovereign Lady, Op. 43
6. O Fervent Intercessor [3:59]
No. 6 from To the Most Holy Sovereign Lady, Op. 43
Serge Vasilyevich RACHMANINOFF (1873-1943)
7. The Theotokos, Who Is Ever-vigilant in Prayer [8:51]
Sacred Concerto (1891)
Sergiy Zosimovich TRUBACHOV (1919-1995)
8. Troparion to the ‘Donskoy’ Icon of the Theotokos [3:00]
Fedor Alekseyevich IVANOV (c. 1855-1920)
9. Do Not Lament Me, O Mother [3:41]
Boris Mikhailovich LEDKOVSKY (1894-1975)
10. We Have No Other Help [5:38]
Sacred Concerto
Stepan Anikiyevich DEGTIARIOV (1766-1813)
11. At Thy Deathless Dormition [8:44]
Sacred Concerto
Sergiy Zosimovich TRUBACHOV
12. Oh, How Sweet Is Thy Voice (1988) [2:10]
Tsar Feodor ALEKSEYEVICH (1661-1682)
13. It Is Truly Meet, arr. 1995, Fr. Matfei (Mormyl’) [2:31]
Putevoy Chant
14. Exaposteilarion for the ‘Kursk Root’ Icon of the Theotokos, arr. Alexander Borisovich Ledkovsky [2:30]
Pavel Grigorievich CHESNOKOV
15. Revealing to Thee the Pre-eternal Counsel*, Op. 40 No. 2 (c. 1912) [3:56]
16. Beneath Thy Compassion [3:16]
No. 5 from To the Most Holy Sovereign Lady, Op. 43
Constantine Nikolaevich SHVEDOV (1886-1954)
17. It Is Truly Meet [1:52]
From Liturgy No. 1 (1913)
Nikolai Matveyevich UVAROV (1883-1942)
18. The Angel Cried Out [2:14]
*Mikhail Davydov (bass-baritone)

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