The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is a service of the Orthodox Church. Written in 1910, the work consists of twenty settings for unaccompanied four-part chorus. Rachmaninov follows very strictly the Church rules that required intelligibility of the text and the avoidance of polyphony. Instruments were forbidden, with only unaccompanied voices being permitted. The rhythm throughout the work generally closely follows the natural rhythms of the text. Rachmaninov's setting is designed primarily for liturgical use, but also works very well outside this context (indeed the premiere was a secular performance.) This work was recorded in July 2003 in Kings' Chapel. Using an all-male choir with boy's voices for the soprano lines inevitably creates aRead more different sound than the composer would have known - mixed choirs had been normal in Russia at least from the eighteenth century in those churches that followed the Imperial lead in using westernised music.
R E V I E W S:
Vespers (or more properly, the Ordinary portion of the Russian Orthodox Church’s All Night Vigil) has achieved popularity with choirs over the last several decades, the composer’s
Liturgy is less performed and recorded. The reasons aren’t difficult to find. The
Liturgy, for all its attractiveness, lacks the consistent modal coloration of the
Vespers, while its sometimes-lengthy solo passages intoned on a single pitch can give rise to a sense of monotony in non-Orthodox or Russian speaking audiences.
Liturgy even found it tough sledding in Russia, after a short period of initial success. This release’s otherwise excellent liner notes evince surprise that the ecclesiastical authorities prohibited the sacred performance of the work on the grounds that it displayed "a spirit of modernism." Yet, while Rachmaninoff’s
Liturgy is certainly not modern by any secular yardstick of its time and place, it’s revolutionary compared to contemporary Liturgies composed for the Russian Orthodox Church—rather like performing Debussy before a late 18th-century audience. Standard compositional procedure in this kind of music was to harmonize (with Classical-period restraint) the old Church modes employed in traditional or traditional-sounding monodic chants. This is what Gretchaninoff does in his own beautiful fourth
Liturgy (Olympia OCD 480). By contrast, several of Rachmaninoff’s chants are not traditional in structure. He compounded matters by increasingly employing enharmonic modulations as his Liturgy progressed; until some of the later sections, such as the "Hymn of Praise" ("Let our mouths be filled"), could pass for secular compositions by those unfamiliar with the language.
This is not intended as a criticism of Rachmaninoff. His
Liturgy is well crafted, varied within its accepted limits, and displays an instinct for structure that his three completed operas, for all their attractiveness, fail to demonstrate. It also follows Church rules regarding the intelligibility of word setting and an avoidance of polyphony—the latter being considered at various times synonymous with attempts by Roman Catholics to control the Russian Church. But this
Liturgy simply lies outside the pale of what was once sacred musical orthodoxy. It’s none the worse for that, however, and the work has not lacked for the occasional champion over the years.
Cleobury and the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, have already released their version of the Vespers (EMI CDC 56752), where they opted for very fast tempos but employed a generous and appropriate amount of rubato. Here, the tempos remain on the quick side but moderated, while the rhythms are held under tighter but still flexible rein. The focus is on producing a well-blended tone that maintains the distinguishing dark bass that lies at the heart of Russo-Soviet choral music; and for the most part, Cleobury succeeds. I found the characteristically white sound of the boys distracting in his
Vespers, but less so, here. This is a sympathetic and dynamically varied reading. Although the Choir of King’s College is not idiomatic in its phrasing or pronunciation, both Deacon Sims and Protodeacon Scorer perform as though the words and music were in their blood.
Sound quality is excellent. Good liner notes are provided, with a Russian transliteration of the text alongside German, French, and English translations. Recommended.