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Hyperion Records

CDH55437 - Tchaikovsky: Liturgy of St John Chrysostom
The Virgin from a Deesis Tier (first half on the sixteenth century).
Old Believers Church or the Dormition in Tver
CDH55437
(Originally issued on CDA66948)

Recording details: April 1997
St Alban's Church, Holborn, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Antony Howell & Julian Millard
Release date: December 2012
DISCID: 20118D14
Total duration: 74 minutes 44 seconds

'I would go so far as to say that this recording carries more musical conviction than any of its rivals' (Classic CD)

Liturgy of St John Chrysostom

'There is nothing like entering a church on a Saturday, standing in the semi-darkness with the scent of incense wafting through the air, lost in deep contemplation searching for an answer to those perennial questions, wherefore, when, whither and why?'

These words, from one of Tchaikovsky's own letters, sum up the spirit behind the glorious Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, Op 41. The work is steeped in the Orthodox tradition, the choral writing provides that sense of transparency and simplicity demanded by the text, and the resulting ambience is rich in the manner familiar to Western listeners from works such as Rachmaninov's Vespers.

This recording also includes ten choruses to texts many of which are taken from the Liturgy. The first nine were published together in 1885, while the tenth, 'The angel cried', was lost shortly after its first performance in 1887 and only rediscovered thirteen years after the composer's death.


Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The word ‘Liturgy’ is used in the Orthodox Church specifically to mean the Eucharistic service—what in the West would be called the Mass. There were in the early Church a number of Liturgies, but nowadays there are four forms in use in the eastern Church: the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom (the usual form on Sundays and weekdays), the Liturgy of St Basil the Great (used ten times a year), the Liturgy of St James, the Brother of the Lord (used on St James’s Day, 23 October, in only a few places in the world), and the Liturgy of the Presanctified, used on Wednesdays and Fridays in Lent and the first three days of Holy Week. The Liturgy is always sung. Structurally, all these four have points in common with the Western Mass. A non-Orthodox would, for example, recognize in the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom the Introit (in the form of the Little Entrance), Epistle, Alleluia, Gospel, Creed, Lord’s Prayer and Sanctus. A normal Sunday Liturgy lasts considerably longer than a Mass would usually do—somewhere between one-and-a-half and two-and-a-half hours. In fact, one of the characteristics of Orthodox services of all kinds is their length. For concert and recording purposes it is very frequently the case that the choral parts of the Liturgy only are sung, omitting the priest’s and deacon’s contributions. This is the procedure which has been adopted in the present recording.

Tchaikovsky and liturgical music
Tchaikovsky was not a regular churchgoer but he was profoundly attached to the rituals and music of the Orthodox Church. He wrote to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck: ‘As you can see, I am still bound to the Church by strong ties, but on the other hand I have long ceased to believe in the dogma.’ He added further that he attended the Liturgy and Vigil frequently: ‘Anyone trying to comprehend the meaning of each ceremony will be stirred to the very depths of his being […] There is nothing like entering an ancient church on a Saturday, standing in the semi-darkness with the scent of incense wafting through the air, lost in deep contemplation searching for an answer to those perennial questions, wherefore, when, whither and why?’

The setting of the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom which Tchaikovsky began in 1878 was, then, a product of this deep emotional link which he had with Orthodox worship, and though the work even today is still often considered as being too ‘Western’, in spirit it is truly Russian. Tchaikovsky set all the principal sections of the Liturgy, a total of fifteen numbers of which ten are recorded here (the various litanies which punctuate the Orthodox Liturgy with their dialogue between priest and choir are omitted). In spite of the highly dramatic treatment to be found in some sections (the beautiful Cherubic Hymn and Tebe poem, both among the most solemn moments of the celebration, are good examples) and the typically Russian doubling of octaves and fifths, the choral writing is in general characterized by simplicity and transparency, as is demanded by the primacy of the text in Orthodox worship. In such numbers as the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, Tchaikovsky makes use of a rapid choral recitative which is typical of the Russian tradition (its twentieth-century descendant may be heard in the Slavonic setting of the Creed by Stravinsky and, at one further remove, in the Latin setting of the same text in his Mass). Indeed, the composer was acutely aware of the necessity to imbue any attempt at composing for the Church with the correct liturgical ambience (and would become even more aware of this in his setting of the Vigil of 1881/2), and therefore places great reliance on the richness of the choral sound itself, without resorting to any extended contrapuntal elaboration or harmonic abstruseness. There are moments of imitative writing (in Tebe poem, for example) and antiphonal effects (Dostoyno est), but they are exceptional, and not the basic compositional elements of the work.

The publication of Tchaikosvky’s Liturgy in 1879 caused a famous incident which would have wide-ranging consequences for the future of Russian sacred music. It was issued by Pyotr Jurgenson, the Moscow publisher who often collaborated with the Imperial Chapel, but on this occasion he had not requested the Chapel’s authorization, indispensable since the time of Bortnyansky (who had been director of the choir from 1796 until his death in 1825). No score could be published or sung without its imprimatur. The current director, Bakhmetev, responded immediately to the publication by confiscating copies and instigating a lawsuit against the publisher. The case took more than two years but was concluded in the composer’s favour and, meanwhile, the Liturgy was first performed at the university church in Kiev in June 1879. A second performance took place in a concert version in Moscow in December 1880 and was enthusiastically received.

A rather more positive view of Tchaikosvky’s sacred music than that of the Church was taken by Tsar Aleksandr III (1881–1894). He told the composer that he was puzzled at his not having written anything further in this field. Between November 1884 and April 1885, therefore, Tchaikovsky composed three further settings of the Cherubic Hymn, all similar in mood to that found in the complete Liturgy but much more influenced by chant and transparently modal. He also set a series of other sacred texts, three of them from the Liturgy (Tebe poem, Dostoyno est and The Lord’s Prayer); the magnificent, light-filled Blazhenni yazhe izbral comes from the Panikhida˙ (funeral service), Da ispravitsya is from Vespers, and Nyne sily nebesnyya, in which the richness of Tchaikovsky’s scoring takes him close to Rachmaninov or Kastalsky, is from the Liturgy of the Presanctified.

The setting of the Easter zadostoynik, Angel vopiyashe is an impressive work, a miniature drama constructed from minimal resources. It has a curious history in that it was written in 1887 for the inaugural concert of the Moscow Choral Society but subsequently lost. It reappeared in the library of a Moscow choirmaster and was published only in 1906, thirteen years after the composer’s death.

Ivan Moody © 1997

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