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Ikon II / Stephen Layton, Holst Singers

Holst Singers / Layton
Release Date: 10/12/2010 
Label:  Hyperion   Catalog #: 67756  
Composer:  Nikolai S. GolovanovPavel ChesnokovAlexander GrechaninovPeter Ilyich Tchaikovsky,   ... 
Conductor:  Stephen Layton
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Holst Singers
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

IKON II Stephen Layton, cond; Holst Singers HYPERION CDA 67756 (71:35)


If you’re familiar with Rachmaninoff’s Vespers (or more properly, the Ordinary section of the All Night Vigil ), you’ve already Read more had an effective introduction to Russian Orthodox liturgical music. The “begats” that led to that work and many others start with Prince Vladimir Fyodorovich Odoyevsky (1804–69), a founding member of the Russian Musical Society, an enthusiastic collector of old Russian chant manuscripts, and a music teacher at a time when native instruction was inevitably performed by amateurs. Among his students was Stepan Smolensky, later director of the Synodal Choir, who commissioned a number of modern Russian composers—Kastalsky, Nikolsky, Kallinikov (Viktor, brother of the better known Vasili), and yes, Rachmaninoff—to write a cappella sacred compositions. Under Smolensky and his successors the sung liturgy moved away from polyphony, which was regarded as one of many foreign, negative influences, and back to far older, monophonic chant themes. The performance model was that of the late 19th-century Russian choir in all its glory, however, and the results were homophonic works of great craftsmanship and emotive character, developed around much simpler, folk-like Russian melodies.

Some of the composers’ names will be familiar. Others, very popular in the Church, are virtually unknown outside it. The first category includes Balakirev and Rimsky-Korsakov, both of whom led the Imperial Court Chapel (though the former’s reign as administrator was brief and tempestuous), Tchaikovsky, and Cui. Grechaninov is present as well, looming rather larger in consideration than he did until recently, with the slow rediscovery of his secular works. There’s also a surprise among the other names: Nikolai Golovanov, who wrote 23 sacred works before the Revolution and his subsequent great success as a conductor. To the other side lie Alexander Kastalsky and Pavel Chesnokov, both pupils of Smolensky, the former with roughly 130 liturgical compositions to his credit. The latter was virtually a cottage industry, having composed more than 400 Russian Orthodox works. Konstantin Shvedov comes across as something of an odd man out from both these groups, a musician who moved to the U.S. in the late 1920s, became a church choir conductor in Babylon, N.Y., and frequently employed both complicated counterpoint and imitative writing.

Make no mistake, there are many choral gems among these short selections. Though based on an old Kievan chant, it’s the rich, passing harmonies in Chesnokov’s Salvation is Created , and the sudden shift from a bass-oriented, short-spanned thematic arch to a soaring one with female voices, that sets it apart. Golovanov’s Our Father has something of the harmonic and textural spaciousness of Rachmaninoff, as does Gretchaninov’s sumptuous Of Thy Mystical Supper , while Rimsky-Korsakov’s setting of the same material is both simpler and much closer to the natural rhythms of the language. Kallinikov’s Rejoice, O Virgin builds impressively over a pair of repeated open fifths, A–E and D–A, rung in the bass line like a giant bell. The nobly lyrical melody of Shvedov’s The Cherubic Hymn recalls Rimsky-Korsakov—not of the Our Father , but of the middle-period operas Sadko, Tsar Saltan , and Mlada . Next to most of the contents on this album, the radiant intensity of Tchaikovsky’s Come, Let Us Worship shines to great effect. While these are some of my favorites, that isn’t to imply the others lack interest. Everything on this album was clearly chosen with care, and there are no selections that allow the attention to wander.

Neither Stephen Layton nor the Holst Singers is new to Fanfare readers. Suffice to say that these readings are musically immaculate and perfectly blended, with imperceptibly graded dynamics, and tempos that are never rushed. The accents of the language aren’t always caught well, but the rolling Russian diphthongs are securely reproduced. My only real negative surprise is an absence of any texts, either in the original Cyrillic or the Latin alphabet, and any English translations. Hyperion is usually excellent about providing this. But it’s an oversight I can pardon, given the quality of the music, the performances, and the atmospheric but not over-reverberant sound. Strongly recommended.

FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
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Works on This Recording

Our Father, Op. 9 no 3 by Nikolai S. Golovanov
Conductor:  Stephen Layton
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Holst Singers
Salvation is created by Pavel Chesnokov
Period: 20th Century 
Written: Russia 
The Seven Days of the Passion, Op. 58: no 7, At thy mystical by Alexander Grechaninov
Period: Romantic 
Written: Russia 
Bless the Lord, o my soul by Pavel Chesnokov
Period: 20th Century 
Written: Russia 
Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, Op. 24: no 6, Let my prayer arise by Pavel Chesnokov
Period: Modern 
Written: 19th Century; Russia 
Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, Op. 41: Come, let us worship by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1878; Russia 
Cherubic Hymn, Op. 13 by Konstantin Shvedov
Come, let us worship, Op. 11 by Viktor Kalinnikov
We hymn thee, Op. 7 by Viktor Kalinnikov
Rejoice, O Virgin, Op. 17 by Viktor Kalinnikov
Bless the Lord, O my soul, Op. 1 no 1 by Nikolai Tolstiakov
Our Father by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Period: Romantic 
Written: Russia 
We hymn thee, Op. 2 by Viktor Kalinnikov
The Thrice-Holy, Op. 7 by Konstantin Shvedov
Radiant Light, Op. 73 by Alexandr Kastalsky
Period: Modern 
Hymn to the Most Holy Mother of God, Op. 93 by César Cui
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1914; Russia 

Featured Sound Samples

Salvation Is Created (Chesnokov)
The Seven Days of the Passion (Gretchaninov): No 7: At Thy Mystical Supper

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