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Russian Treasures

Tenebrae, Nigel Short (conductor)
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: March 2013
St Augustine's Church, Kilburn, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Nicholas Parker
Engineered by Andrew Mellor & George Pierson
Release date: January 2014
Total duration: 61 minutes 22 seconds

Russian Treasures is the twentieth album from award-winning professional choir, Tenebrae, and the first release on new label Bene Arte, established exclusively to record the choir and associated artists. Russian choral music has been a feature in Tenebrae’s concert performances since the choir’s inception and over the years they have worked extensively with Russian language coaches whilst nurturing their own characteristics of passion and precision to deliver a special and heartfelt tribute to the music of these great composers. This album was inspired by the rare manuscripts collected by director Nigel Short during his travels around Russia. The exquisite collection includes some little-known gems, rarely heard outside Russia and never before recorded in the UK, as well as some familiar favourites from this vast area of choral repertoire.


'Russian Treasures comprises rare choral gems and sacred music from the Russian Orthodox Church, including works by Rachmaninov, Chesnokov and Golovanov. Highly recommended' (The Northern Echo)
‘I would like to try to do something for church music’, wrote Tchaikovsky to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck in 1878. ‘I can see certain merits in Bortnyansky, Berezovsky and so forth, but their music is so utterly out of harmony with the Byzantine style of the architecture and the icons, with the whole structure of the Orthodox service.’

The time for a revival of Old Church Slavonic settings was ripe. The Russian art of church singing embodied in the znamenny or sign chant, running parallel to the neumes or notational symbols of western medieval religious works but so different both to those and to the music of Greek Orthodoxy owing to the special character of the Russian language, was carried over on the thinnest of threads to the 17th century. But following the fascination of Peter the Great and his line with Italian music, the tradition was buried alive while native composers like Dmitri Bortnyansky moved into what Tchaikovsky called over-ornamented ‘bad style … exceedingly dismal tripe’ which was ‘laborious and tedious’ to work on in a new edition.

Nevertheless, that is what Tchaikovsky did, in 1881, and to salve his conscience he worked on a setting of the orthodox All-Night Vigil, which he promised would be ‘much less European’ than the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom he had ‘composed’ in that first flush of enthusiasm for church music: ‘I want, but only to a certain extent, to retrieve ecclesiastical music from its excessive Europeanism not so much by means of theory as by artistic sensitivity’. The exquisite choral piece we hear by Tchaikovsky on this disc is not from either church service but an arrangement of the best-loved among his Sixteen Songs for Children, Op 54—the ‘legend’ of the Christ child crowned with thorns. It’s in English because in addition to an orchestral transcription Tchaikovsky also adapted it for unaccompanied choir for a New York performance in 1891 following Schütz’s Seven Last Words. The (un)orthodoxy lies in the second half of each verse, where the composer has harmonised his own treatment of an ‘unusual’ church melody.

Tchaikovsky was surprised to learn on setting his first liturgy that ‘composing for the Church is the monopoly of the [Court] Chapel, that it is forbidden to print or sing in churches anything that had not been published in the edition of the Chapel’. His publisher took the Chapel to court and won. Further freedoms were encouraged by a crucial institution, the Moscow Synodal School for Church Music. It had led an almost invisible existence until a musical firebrand, Stepan Smolensky, took charge in 1889. He had just overhauled Alexander Mezenetz’s life-saving 1668 collection of znammeny melodies and encouraged his pupils to read music from the ‘signs’.

Among those pupils were Alexander Scriabin and Sergey Rachmaninov, and it was with Rachmaninov that the legacy bore the most extraordinary fruit. The stepwise movements of the native chants informed all his major works, from the openings of all three of his symphonies to the first piano melodies of the Second and Third Piano Concertos. His most specific triumph in the field, though, was the All-Night Vigil or Vespers of 1915, where, like Tchaikovsky, he followed the rules of the church in using traditional chants for adaptation from Kievan originals onwards, employing six original melodies in what he called ‘conscious counterfeit’ of the ritual. Like Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov was less proud of having started out with a Liturgy of St John Chrysostom five years earlier, though there are many beautiful individual settings here, too, especially the Cherubic Hymn with its lines descending on the sopranos from heaven and later ascending after a great blaze.

It was the Vesper setting, though, of which Rachmaninov remained most proud, ranking it alongside his choral symphony The Bells as his favourite work. And his favourite number, he declared several times throughout his later years, was the setting of the Song of Simeon, the New Testament text we know as the Nunc Dimittis, which begins so unforgettably with cradle rockings from the upper voices to give a halo to the plangent tenor solo. As Rachmaninov wrote to his first biographer:

‘I should like this sung at my funeral [it was]. Towards the end there is a passage sung by the basses—a scale descending to the lowest B flat in a very slow pianissimo. After I played this passage Danilin [the conductor of the Moscow Synodal Choir at the first performance] shook his head, saying, ‘Now where on earth are we to find such basses? They are as rare as asparagus at Christmas!’ Nevertheless, he did find them. I know the voices of my countrymen well, and I well know what demands I could make upon Russian basses.’

The basses of Tenebrae can manage it, too: in fact the lowest of the low notes, that famous B flat, is heard on each of the first three tracks. Two other numbers from the Vespers favour the blossoming of sopranos from the single line of Rachmaninov’s ‘counterfeit’ chant in Bogoroditse Devo (Rejoice/Ave Maria) and Blazhen muzh (Blessed is the man), while the celebratory Vzbrannoy voyevode (Hymn of Thanksgiving) which ends this programme has a hint of the syncopations which power the Gloria at the end of Rachmaninov’s longest, ninth setting, the one which he quoted as a victory over death in his swansong orchestral work the Symphonic Dances.

Of the other composers featured in this selection, only Alexander Grechaninov had anything like Tchaikovsky’s or Rachmaninov’s grasp of the entire musical spectrum, and by comparison he never came as close to the old style of Byzantine-based inspiration in his church settings. He did make contact with Smolensky, consulting him only to do otherwise in works like the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, where Nïne silï nebesnïya (Now the Powers of Heaven) shows a wonderful sense of choral richness in its eight-part writing, with richer harmonies than would be appropriate in more faithful znammeny-style composing. One repeated vocal line would not be out of place in a lush Glazunov symphony. Scholar of Russian folk and church music Alfred Swan condemned Grechaninov’s ‘hunt for prettiness’, but this piece is none the worse for that, if unique in Tenebrae’s context.

Ploughing a narrower, at first totally devout field, Pavel Chesnokov was a faithful acolyte of Smolensky at the Synodal School. Tellingly, he told Swan in 1933 ‘I have devoted my life to choral music, have written about 500 religious and 100 secular choruses’. The reason for the turn to the secular should be obvious: the Revolution of 1917, the fallout from which soon put a stop to the composition of religious music. Chesnokov’s chaste style, with only the occasional discreet chromaticism, is well represented by the three numbers here. The rich divisions of Svete tihiy (Gladsome Light) and this flowing Heruvimskaya pesn (Cherubic Hymn) speak of radiance, but perhaps most remarkable—indeed for me the real discovery here—is the setting of Tebe poyem (We hymn thee) from the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. It begins in a very dark B minor underpinned by the basses’ next-to-lowest note and miraculously finds its way into D major light. More needs to be written about Chesnokov, but the 70-year shutdown on religious music has seen him marginalised.

Viktor Kalinnikov was the younger brother of the much more celebrated Vasily, famous for a well-constructed First Symphony rich in melody. Vasily died tragically young in 1901, while Viktor pursued his studies at the unavoidable Moscow Synodal School, continuing there when it fell under the aegis of the Moscow Conservatory, only to fold completely in 1923. Of his twenty-four sacred settings, only one uses an original znammeny chant, though the rest, like much of Rachmaninov’s religious works, follow the idiom faithfully. There is an unexpected note of Tchaikovskyan pathos in the second Svete tihiy (Gladsome Light) on this disc, though the vocal lines blossom with an apt, forward-moving sincerity.

If we know the name of Nikolay Golovanov at all in the west, it is as a very eccentric, some would say wilful but certainly masterly interpreter of Russian symphonic and operatic classics. Born the same year as Sergey Prokofiev, he did not share Prokofiev’s tragedy of dying on the same day as Stalin in 1953, but he died no less prematurely that August, destroyed by his dismissal from an important post at the Bolshoy Theatre. Allegedly the punishment was for his having engaged a Jewish bass, Mark Reizen, for a distinguished recording of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov.

Golovanov’s earlier life was happier and he too trained at the Moscow Synodal School, later assisting that same Danilin who gave the first performance of Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil. This Heruvimskaya pesn (Cherubic Hymn) was his Op 1 No 1, richly harmonised for four-part tenors and basses. His Otche nash (Our Father) is the most illustrative of the text, with striking parallel lines and a passage marked ‘with desperation’ before the misterioso conclusion.

One last Otche nash has the most intriguing of all the biographical backgrounds. Nikolay Kedrov was a fine baritone who graduated from the St Petersburg Conservatory to sing at the Bolshoy and Mariinsky theatres and, more lucratively, to form a vocal quartet in 1897. The group travelled widely, recording an album with Chaliapin in London, and it was for his little ensemble that Kedrov wrote his Otche nash, simplicity itself, especially as compared with Golovanov’s version. Like Grechaninov and Rachmaninov, Kedrov adapted to post-revolutionary exile, settling first in Berlin and then in Paris. He formed another quartet which proved equally successful, and the family business was continued after his death by Nikolay Junior (whose sister, incidentally, was the actress Lila Kedrova, to be heard in the London cast recording of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret). Russian liturgical music’s fate in its homeland, meanwhile, became a desperate one. Its sad symbolic envoi is encapsulated by Chesnokov’s fate, shocked into creative silence by the 1933 destruction of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, where he had been choirmaster, to make way for a new House of Soviets. That remained unbuilt and a swimming pool stood on the site until the lavish reconstruction of the cathedral in the 1990s. The Russian Orthodox church is now, of course, renascent in an complex bond with government and power, but the old glories of its church music are also very much alive.

David Nice © 2013

Russian Treasures is the twentieth album from Tenebrae and this release has further significance as it sees the launch of the new label, Bene Arte, established exclusively to record the choir. Russian choral music has been a feature in Tenebrae’s concert performances since the choir’s inception so it seemed appropriate for us to record some of this exquisite music, sharing some little-known gems as well as some familiar favourites from this vast area of choral repertoire.

It was in the early nineties, when I was travelling in Russia, that I became captivated by the intense spirituality of the Russian Orthodox Liturgy and the powerful and mystical effect it has when combined with the gloriously sonorous music sung so beautifully by the native choirs. I found old music shops, seeking original manuscripts or anything choral I could lay my hands on. I soon started to build a collection of one-of-a-kind scores not just from the renowned and celebrated composers but also some relatively obscure names largely unheard-of outside Russia. It was this uniqueness that inspired me for this album of sacred Russian Orthodox music, especially knowing that some of these pieces have never before been recorded in the UK. There is a wealth of choral music associated with the Liturgy from the Russian Orthodox Churches, dating back to the 16th century and evolving more-or-less uninterrupted until the sudden decline in the Church’s fortunes which accompanied the Bolshevik Rebellion in 1917. From Kedrov’s intensely spiritual yet delicate setting of the Lord’s Prayer and Kalinnikov’s comparatively light and lyrical feel, to the more traditional dark, rich and heavy textures of Rachmaninov, this disc is punctuated by those unmistakable Russian forces.

Over the years we have worked extensively with Russian language coaches whilst nurturing our own characteristics of passion and precision to deliver a special and heartfelt tribute to the music of these great composers. Thank you to everyone who has been involved in bringing this album to fruition, especially the singers. To you, the listeners, we hope you enjoy this selection of treasured pieces of music.

Nigel Short © 2013

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