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Shchedrin: The Sealed Angel / Webber, Trendell

Shchedrin / Choir Of Gonville & Caius College
Release Date: 10/11/2011 
Label:  Delphian   Catalog #: 34067   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Rodion Shchedrin
Performer:  Clare Wills
Conductor:  Geoffrey WebberDavid Trendell
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Gonville and Caius College Choir CambridgeKing's College Choir London
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 0 Hours 55 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

SHCHEDRIN The Sealed Angel Geoffrey Weber, David Trendell, cond; Gonville & Caius College Ch; King’s College Ch; Clare Wills (ob) DELPHIAN CD 34067 (54:42 Text and Translation)

In 1998, in Fanfare 22:2, I reviewed a recording of this work led by Lorna Cooke de Varon on a Sonora CD (now out of print). That recording includes narration, with a reader providing (in English) excerpts from the short story by Nikolai Leskov on Read more which the work is based. Subsequent recordings have omitted that narration, and I strongly prefer it without the speaking, which seems a distraction. Shchedrin scored The Sealed Angel for choir with occasional vocal solos, and a single wind instrument which can be either a flute or oboe. This recording is the first I’ve encountered that uses the oboe; in their different ways, each is effective in creating the haunting coloristic quality that the composer seemed to be after.

The Sealed Angel is a work of great beauty. “Haunting,” a word I used above, seems the appropriate adjective to apply to much of the score, but there are dramatic outbursts and moments of tension that provide real contrast. The story deals with a group of Old Believers who, in 18th-century Russia, resisted modernization of the church. The tyranny of church and of government is depicted, though the piece ends on a note of serenity and hope. Shchedrin wrote this score in 1988, a risky act during the Communist regime, which had no use for religion.

The booklet of this CD contains a fascinating interview with the composer, who talks about growing up with the religious music of Tchaikovsky, Glinka, and Arensky as part of his heritage, though they had to hear the music secretly because it was forbidden. He also talks about being in a choir that sang motets and cantatas by Haydn, Bach, Schubert, Mozart, etc., but with awful secular texts by “terrible poets” in order to disguise their religious origins!

The majority of the music of The Sealed Angel is soft, slow, and reminiscent of the music of, for example, Arvo Pärt. As I said in that 1998 review, Shchedrin has always been one of Russia’s most difficult composers on whom to pin labels. He seems equally comfortable with satire and parody ( Mischievous Melodies , or The Carmen Ballet ) as with the deeply spiritual world of The Sealed Angel . This score veers from the quiet, almost static world with which it opens to moments of intense drama and grinding dissonances, or ecstatic outbursts of joy.

All the recordings with which I am familiar, except this one, use a flute instead of oboe. The Sonora recording I reviewed back in 1988 is not competitive because of the narration. A Wergo recording with the Latvian State Choir conducted by Maris Sirmais is a lovely performance, though a bit more angular and incisive than is ideal. A recording with the Berlin Radio Choir on the Coviello label (CDV 60504) also seems too angular a performance, emphatic and firm where it needs to be seamless and more mysterious. The best until now is a BMG/Melodiya recording with the Moscow Chamber Choir and USSR Russian Choir conducted by Vladimir Minin. The Russian choirs sing this music with a natural feel for the language and the idiom, and the recorded sound is rich and resonant, as it should be (BMG Melodiya 74321 36905 2). If you own that disc, it surely doesn’t need replacing by this one.

If you don’t have any recording of The Sealed Angel this new effort would make a superb introduction to this score. The tempi are a bit quicker than the Latvian and Russian performances, the dramatic contrasts a bit stronger, and I have a slight preference for the color of the oboe over the flute. In an unusual concept, the directors of the two choirs used on this disc alternate conducting different movements, but there is no discernible difference in approach or execution between them. The choirs sing beautifully, with a richly blended sound that never turns muddy; the various vocal soloists in individual movements sing beautifully, and the recorded sound achieves the perfect balance between clarity and a warm halo of sound. In sum, this is a stunningly beautiful score, a piece of music that has continued to provide me pleasure since I first encountered it in 1998.

FANFARE: Henry Fogel
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Works on This Recording

Sealed Angel by Rodion Shchedrin
Performer:  Clare Wills (Oboe)
Conductor:  Geoffrey Webber,  David Trendell
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Gonville and Caius College Choir Cambridge,  King's College Choir London
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1988; USSR 
Venue:  Worksop College Chapel 
Length: 5 Minutes 20 Secs. 

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