Steve Whitehead
Cross Rhythms

John Chrysostom 'the golden-tongued' (347-407) was the most eloquent preacher of his day and rose to the position of Archbishop of the Imperial capital Constantinople; Alexander Men (1935-1990) was a Russian priest and reformer at the close of the Soviet Empire. How these two interesting characters came to be linked through the work of the Russian-born (in 1955) composer Alexander Levine is a story that is worth hearing and is indeed told in the interesting album booklet. The journey started with a pilgrimage to the grave of Father Alexander Men at Novaya Derevnya near Moscow. 'When I returned to London', says Alexander Levine, 'I had a strong feeling that I should start composing the music for the Liturgy straight away … I thought about this journey as the spiritual experience of a person who one day comes to the church to participate in a liturgical service, where prayers and music would cast upon him the joy of unification in spirit with the divinity of God through Jesus Christ.' The resulting composition certainly achieves this numinosity, with echoes of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov. The chamber choir Tenebrae under the direction of Nigel Short is in superlative voice and the recording at St Augustine's Church in Highbury, London, is crystal clear. Although the texts are in Russian (with a translation in the album booklet) the accent is still slightly English and one wonders what a Russian choir would sound like. But this is a minor quibble and if any other choir could manage to sound better than Tenebrae it would be stunning. Levine has adapted the Liturgy somewhat so that there is no solo part for the priest and instead the choir sings throughout. This moves the work towards being a concert piece rather than an act of worship (which is an observation and not a criticism). Those whose interest in Orthodox music was awakened by John Tavener may well enjoy this further and deeper exploration and all who appreciate fine choral singing will applaud Nigel Short and Tenebrae.