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Ikon, Vol. 1

Sacred Choral Music from Eastern Europe
Holst Singers, Stephen Layton (conductor) Detailed performer information
Label: Hyperion
Recording details: October 1996
All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Antony Howell & Julian Millard
Release date: May 1997
Total duration: 76 minutes 55 seconds

Cover artwork: Christ in Majesty.
Russian ikon from the first half of the 15th century

James Bowman regards this disc as the most inspiring he has recently recorded; and the Managing Director of Musica Russica writes: 'I have thoroughly enjoyed working on this project ... I hope this will not be the last recording of Russian music by the excellent Holst Singers!'

The tradition of Russian choral music stands today as rich and diverse as at any time in its long history, and this recording brings movements from the Liturgies by Tchaikovsky and Gretchaninov together with seven beautiful pieces by Georgy Sviridov, including three Sacred Choruses which he successfully steered through Communist prohibition under the guise of incidental music for the theatre.

As an appendix, works by Górecki, Pärt and Nystedt show how the Orthodox tradition has affected neighbouring countries (Poland, Estonia and Sweden, respectively); Immortal Bach is a particularly evocative work—a 'free' exploration of Bach's chorale 'Komm, süsser Tod'.


‘Sensitive readings of the utmost sensitivity and control’ (Gramophone)

‘Uniformly charismatic performances. Fine engineering and notes too. Highly recommended’ (Fanfare, USA)

Other recommended albums

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Choral music written for unaccompanied voices (a cappella) has traditionally been the medium of choice for composers striving to express and make real the highest aspirations of humankind as reason-endowed, worshipping creatures. The singing of inspired texts, given a heightened utterance through musical sounds that themselves are produced with the movement of the very breath that signifies and sustains life (‘Here there is no need for … strings … or any instrument …’ St John Chrysostom), attains a purposefulness and nobility that places it among the pinnacles of all human activity.

Thus, although not all the works on this recording are written on sacred or liturgical texts, in their deepest essence they may be regarded as religious musical works, bringing to mind and re-connecting us to the ultimate purposes of our existence.

Perhaps in no other national culture have these artistic ideals been preserved more fully than in Russia, where the Orthodox Church has always adhered to the early Christian principle of exclusively vocal performance. Through historical circumstance, the vocal ideal in Russia was enriched and augmented by Western European harmony and counterpoint, resulting in works of immense sonorous and expressive richness. This fascination with choral sonority runs as a common thread through the works of the Russian composers represented here—Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Victor Sergeyevich Kalinnikov, Alexander Tikhonovich Gretchaninov, and Georgy Vasilyevich Sviridov, whose musical careers collectively span over 150 years. Not surprisingly, the three works by non-Russians from closely neighbouring Poland, Estonia, and Norway—Henryk Górecki, Arvo Pärt, and Knut Nystedt, respectively—display a similar focus on rich and texturally varied unaccompanied choral sound as a medium for achieving spiritually transfiguring musical experiences that seem to transcend time itself.

Georgy Sviridov (b1915) stands as a giant among Russian choral composers of the Soviet era. Almost single-handedly he carried forth the torch of high-minded and spirit-imbued choral art in the tradition of the pre-1917 Moscow Synodal School which had spearheaded a renaissance of highly artistic choral composition in the last decade of the nineteenth and the first two decades of the twentieth centuries. While most of his contemporaries were crafting ideologically correct folk-song arrangements or vacuous paeans to the brave new socialist paradise, Sviridov continued the tradition of composing choral music on texts of the highest quality—texts drawn from the Orthodox liturgy and texts by the best of Russian (and some non-Russian) poets. Official Communist Party ideology prohibited the composition of sacred works, so Sviridov cleverly circumvented this injunction by composing three sacred choruses under the guise of incidental music for Alexis Tolstoy’s play Tsar Feodor Ioannovich, an historical drama set in the seventeenth century.

The first chorus, Molitva (Prayer), uses the traditional liturgical text ‘Rejoice, O virgin’ from the Orthodox Vesper service. Musically, the work blends unison melodic motifs reminiscent of the ancient znamenny chant of the Russian Orthodox Church with harmonically resplendent, multi-layered textures characteristic of the Moscow Synodal style. The second number, Liubov sviataya (Sacred love), uses a non-liturgical text intoned in chant-like fashion by the soprano soloist over what might be termed a Byzantine-style drone (ison) in a twentieth-century harmonic incarnation. The effect is, at once, serene and filled with intense pathos. The third chorus, Pokayannïy stih (A Verse of Repentance), employs actual znamenny chant melodies, transcribed by the Soviet era’s pre-eminent chant scholar, Maksim Brazhnikov; the text is drawn from the penitential and apocalyptic poetry of the Russian ‘spiritual verses’—paraliturgical sacred songs that abounded in medieval Russia. Once again, to achieve sonorous and dramatic ends, Sviridov melds linear chant phrases with a layered ‘homorhythmic polyphony’, a style of choral writing distilled from indigenous Russian folk-singing initially by Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky, but developed to a high degree of refinement in the choral works of Alexander Kastalsky and Sergei Rachmaninov.

These Three Choruses are Sviridov’s only overtly ‘sacred’ works actually recognized and published during the Soviet period. (He has in recent years composed several works on Russian Orthodox liturgical texts, which remain unpublished.) Most of his choral works are settings of texts by Russian poets—the most prominent among them being Alexander Pushkin, Sergei Yesenin, and Alexander Blok; the set of four choruses based on poems from Blok’s cycle Songs of Troubled Times was composed in 1980. Blok’s ‘symbolist’ verse, remarkably ‘spiritual’ for a writer officially embraced by the Communist Party, exemplifies the sort of poetry that nourished Russian souls in the midst of an atheistic, materialistic ideology. The imagery in the first three choruses is not merely pleasant Romantic nature poetry: it portrays the realm of nature touched and transfigured by the Divine Hand. In the fourth chorus, a sky similarly transfigured frames a mystical encounter with an image of Christ. Musically and stylistically, Sviridov treats these texts in a manner resembling his treatment of sacred texts: homophony prevails, ensuring the primacy and intelligibility of the text; solo intonations alternate with full, choral chords; timbral contrasts between the treble and male groups are used; a soloist intones the text over a wordless, multi-layered, ison-like drone. One might argue that the style of Sviridov’s settings is overly dramatic and expressive to qualify as a truly sacred style. His writing, however, represents a logical continuation of at least one direction in sacred choral composition, exemplified by such composers as Gretchaninov, Rachmaninov, and Nikolai Golovanov, in the Russian pre-Revolutionary period. Taken together, the stylistic elements in Sviridov’s choruses show him clearly to be a perpetuator of the great pre-Revolutionary school of Russian sacred choral composition.

The musical world is acquainted with the name of Vasily Kalinnikov (1866–1901), whose untimely death cut short a promising career as a symphonic composer. The name of his younger brother Victor Kalinnikov (1870–1927) remains virtually unknown in Russia, and even more so in the West. Yet this eminent choral conductor and pedagogue, affiliated with the Moscow Synodal School of Church Singing and the Moscow Conservatory, left a small but significant legacy of choral works—twenty-four sacred choruses and a number of secular choral part-songs and folk-song arrangements—which show him to be an accomplished master. His setting of the ancient Christian Hymn Radiant Light employs a rich and varied palette of choral sonorities by means of which he underscores the textual structure of the hymn and expresses the theological majesty of the text.

The sacred choral legacies of Tchaikovsky and Gretchaninov exhibit a number of interesting interconnections. Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893) was the first Russian composer in the late nineteenth century to write a stylistically unified, cyclical setting of the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, the central eucharistic service of the Orthodox Church. His Liturgy, Op 41, from which The Cherubic Hymn and We hymn Thee are taken, elicited a good deal of controversy in Church circles—some critics likened it to a ‘sacred opera’ that used the text of the Liturgy as its libretto, while the Director of the Imperial Chapel, Bakhmetev, even attempted to ban publication and dissemination of the work. Nevertheless, Tchaikovsky’s lead was subsequently followed by many Russian composers.

Among his most enthusiastic emulators was Alexander Gretchaninov (1864–1956) who, over his lengthy career, composed four cyclical settings of the Liturgy (Opp 13, 29, 79, and 177), two other large-scale liturgical cycles—Passion Week, Op 58, and the All-Night Vigil, Op 59, as well as numerous other Orthodox sacred works and several Roman Catholic Masses. Like Tchaikovsky, Gretchaninov’s intent was to elevate Orthodox liturgical music to a highly artistic and expressive plane, whereby it would take its rightful place alongside large instrumental and symphonic forms. These aspirations led Gretchaninov continually to stretch and push back the traditional forms of liturgical hymns, tendencies that can be observed in his highly original setting of The Creed—for alto soloist and chorus—and in his complex and large-scale setting of the Our Father (which in traditional Russian Orthodox settings is rendered in simple, chordal recitative). Without a doubt, when he was composing The Cherubic Hymn for his Liturgy, Op 29, Gretchaninov also had in his mind’s ear Tchaikovsky’s setting of this text with its striking chordal fanfares in the midst of music permeated with a sense of other-worldly serenity: Gretchaninov, however, saves his fanfares until the very end on the word ‘Alleluia’.

Tchaikovsky himself was no stranger to innovation in his choral writing. Working within a traditional framework of four choral voices (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) that had been solidly established in Russia over the preceding two centuries, he expanded the timbral and textural palette of Russian choral sound. His ranges are wider and his textures richer than those of his Italianate predecessors. This is particularly evident in his setting of Blessed are they whom Thou hast chosen—the communion hymn from the Liturgy for the Departed—where he pioneers such devices as a six- and eight-part texture, timbral contrasts between the treble and male groups of the choir, and octave doublings of melodic passages. All these techniques became prominent stylistic features of the Moscow Synodal composers who came after him, among them Alexander Kastalsky, Pavel Chesnokov, Alexander Nikolsky, Victor Kalinnikov, and … Gretchaninov.

While perhaps exceeding traditional norms of purely liturgical music, both Tchaikovsky and Gretchaninov succeeded in laying their strongly developed creative impulses upon the altar of sacred art. Therefore their works not only stand squarely within the continuum of Russian Orthodox church music, but also are able to speak powerfully outside the context of the liturgy.

At first glance, Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b1935) stands apart from the other composers on this recording: he has been dubbed a ‘mystical minimalist’ by some contemporary critics, a term that suggests a reaction against the lush sonorous indulgences of the Russian Orthodox choral school. Indeed, Pärt’s choral scoring tends to be much sparser than that of the Moscow Synodal composers; his sensitivity to choral colour and texture, however, displays a close kinship with the latter. But the thing that connects him even more closely with his Russian Orthodox brethren is what may be described as his ‘formulaic’ approach to building melodic structures, gleaned, no doubt, from his study of Russian church music. Just as the znamenny chant was constructed by stringing together numerous melodic kernels (known as popevki), so Pärt builds entire choral works or sections thereof by concatenating a relatively small number of melodic and contrapuntal motifs, which are used over and over. Consequently, his music comes across as static, rather than dynamic; serene, rather than emotional; and timeless in its symmetry, rather than moving boldly through time, compelling the listener to follow it from one point to another. At the end of the six-and-a-half-minute-long Magnificat, the emotions have been left undisturbed, and the auditory sense has not been overtly tintillated; but the spirit has been edified and uplifted by an encounter with a seemingly timeless beauty of word and sound perfectly wed together.

It is not difficult to see how Henryk Górecki’s Totus Tuus can be linked to the Russian choral tradition. Górecki (1933-2010) composed the work in 1987 for the third visit of Pope John Paul II to his homeland and the piece uses sonorously contrasting sections of eight-part and four-part writing, reminiscent of the Russians. The text, while short and simple, is given considerable extension and imbued with prayerful intensity through repetition; this is not unlike the effect achieved by Tchaikovsky in his We hymn Thee through the manifold repetition of the words ‘i molim Ti sia’ (‘we pray unto Thee’).

Immortal Bach, arranged by Knut Nystedt (b1915), is essentially a derivative work, based upon temporally prolonging and overlapping the successive chords of Bach’s chorale ‘Komm, süsser Tod’ (‘Come, sweet Death’). The device, at first glance, may strike one as an intellectual gimmick; but, as in other works on this disc, the result may be described as ‘theology expressed in sound’: Bach’s ‘immortality’ is symbolized by making his music literally ‘time-less’. In the process, his simple chorale setting is elevated into something far more profound, allowing us to catch a little glimpse, however fleeting, of eternity.

Vladimir Morosan © 1997

Ikon is a recording of the music from concerts which Holst Singers gave in Arundel, Southwark and the Greek Orthodox Cathedral in London during 1996. The concerts were conceived as a contemplative prayer, and were given in a spirit of charity. The Malcolm Sargent Cancer Fund for Children and the Macmillan Pembridge Appeal Fund received the proceeds from these events.

This recording was made in All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London, where we performed all the music in a concert-like formation, including the final track, Immortal Bach, which needs some explanation. I first heard Nystedt’s Immortal Bach when it was sung by an Estonian Choir, Arsis. They spread themselves around the sides of the church, surrounding the audience and singing from memory. The effect was quite magical and seemingly complicated and yet it was achieved by Nystedt’s simple instructions. He divides the singers into five groups and instructs them to sing the chorale at five different speeds, producing a blurred effect. And so it was that when we came to sing this in concert, or indeed for this recording, we spread about randomly and performed.

There are many people to thank when making a recording of such unusual repertoire: James Bowman for his unfailing enthusiasm as President of Holst Singers, especially when this leads into unchartered vocal territory for him; Vera Betina-Corby for her dramatic language coaching; Father Michael Fortounatto for his inspiring thoughts on the liturgical music; David Johnson and Tony Wenman for pointing me in the direction of Kalinnikov; Aivar Mae, the conductor of Arsis, for introducing me to Immortal Bach; Rosie Cox, for introducing me to an old recording of Sviridov’s music; Joosep Sang from Tallinn for giving me a copy of Sviridov’s music before it was available in the West; Elizabeth de Lacey for her indomitable spirit organizing the three charity concerts from which Ikon emerged; and last but not least all the Holst Singers who specially grew long grey beards in order to join full-heartedly in Russification.

Stephen Layton © 1997

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