From Russia with Love: a music review

Sacred-Songs-of-RussiaSergei Rachmaninoff’s All-night vigil was not Gloræ Dei Cantores first Russian voyage. In 1990 the release of Sacred Songs of Russia showcased the liturgical and sacred music inspired by the Russian Orthodox church

They perform nineteen choral pieces from composers: Alexander Kastalsky, Pavel Chesnokov, Vasily Titov, d. Bortnainsky, Mikhail Glinka, Peter Tchaikivsky, Stepan Smolensky, Alexander Arkhangel’sky, Nikolai Kedrov and Rachmaninoff.

This is a diverse collection, many of these pieces composed for a liturgical setting, though Sviridov’s three choruses were composed for a play, and several pieces were created for the Russian Imperial court. Stylistically there is some rage, there are liturgical call and responses with a baritone deacon and choral response, there are unison chants, contrapuntal and harmonic forms, as well as the incorporation of Russian folk melodies.

This is a hauntingly beautiful collection. The first time I listened I put it on as background music, a soundtrack for my working life and once, only once while my son was napping. However, the Russian melodies and liturgical call demanded attention. It is dynamic with climatic elements. This is the sort of recording which is best if you put everything aside and just take it in. —★★★★★

Gloriæ Dei Cantores  (Singers to the Glory of God), of the Church of the Transfiguration in Orleans, Massachusetts, has an impressive repertoire ranging from Americana to Gregorian Chant, both contemporary masterworks, and the classics. Their newest recording, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil, Opus 37 is produced by Richard Pugsley (their director) and conducted by Peter Jermihov, a specialist in Russian and Orthodox liturgical music. For this recording, they are joined by members of three other choral ensembles: St. Romanos Cappella, The Patriarch Tikhon Choir and the Washington Master Chorale. The seventy-seven singer ensemble also includes soloists Dmitry Ivanchenk and Mariya Berezovska from the National Opera of Ukraine and Vadim Gan, protodeacon under the First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox church.

The fifteen songs of Rachmaninoff’s Opus 37 are fifteen movements to prayer (these works are sometimes Identified as Vespers, but this only the first few songs. The whole collection is richer). In ten songs Rachmaninoff blends the Greek, Kievan and the Great Znamenny chant (from linear notes) He blends this with singable melodies, symphonic elements, and climactic flourishes. Rachmaninoff was not a regular church goer but this is profoundly Christian work, stamped by the spirituality of the Russian Christian East.

Gloriæ Dei Cantores, Jermihov, and the joint choir labored to be true to Rachmaninoff’s vision, inhabiting the sacred space he provides—devout and liturgical, neither theatrical or unresponsive.

I am no expert in Russian composers or choral music in general, I only know what I like. This is well executed and beautiful. I  already appreciate Gloriæ Dei Cantores fine recordings but this is amazing and definitely one of my favorites. —★★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this music from Paraclete Recordings in exchange for my honest review

Kaleidoscope: a music review

Have you ever had an earworm? Stuck Song Syndrome? It is the experience of having a catchy piece of music lodge itself inside your brain and put itself on repeat. Sometimes these are a mere nuisance, but in the case of old favorites or sacred song, it can sometimes be cathartic and formational:

Consider your favorite song—the one you find humming when you feel like dancing or when you need to weep.  Often those “humming tunes” are songs we have known and loved since childhood. They comfort us and give us a sense of strength, hope, acceptance, and love. (from the linear notes of Gloriæ Dei Cantores’ Kaleidoscope: America’s Faith in Song).

Kaleidoscope: America’s Faith in Song-Gloriæ Dei Cantores (Paraclete Recordings 2007).

Gloriæ Dei Cantores is, of late, providing the soundtrack to my life. I listen to them as I work at my computer desk, I play their music in the evenings to help settle kids to sleep, I play their music as I sit down to read. Sometimes I just listen.  Gloriæ Dei Cantores are the choir of the Church of the Transfiguration in Orleans, Massachusetts (at the Community of Jesus)Their 2007 release, Kaleidoscope: America’s Faith in Song explores folk hymns, psalms, and sacred song from the American tradition (19 songs in all).

There are some standout performance. The first track is their rendition and interpretation of John Newton’s Amazing Grace (yes, Newton was a Brit). “This setting is arranged by a group of composers on Cape Cod, Massachusetts who have shared their own  needs, suffering and joys together” (linear notes). The vocal phrasing and the legato to staccato string accompaniment  (especially under “many dangers, toils and snares . . .) provides a  sense of movement through this arrangement capturing both the beauty, and tension of grace.

Bookending this collection is Paul Manz’s E’en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come, an anthem written while the composer was critically ill. Between these two songs are folk melodies, psalms, spirituals, and favorite hymns from various Christian traditions. The Gabriel V Brass Quintet does a rousing jazzy rendition of Let us Break Bread Together on Our Knees and organist James E. Jordan performs William Bolcom’s setting of the hymn (which Bolcom wrote having been ‘taken-in’ by the singing at a local African-American church, see linear notes). Other standout performances include those of the Baptist Hymn, At the River, and the Shaker Hymn, Simple Gifts.

On a whole a very solid collection and interpretation of American sacred song. I give it four stars.

Note: I was provided with a copy of the CD by Paraclete Recordings in exchange for my honest review.

Here is a full Track Listing

  1. Amazing Grace arr. Michael Hale, James Jordan, Timothy McKendree
  2. I Will Arise arr. Alice Parker
  3. Foundation arr. Alice Parker
  4. The Eyes of All Waite Upon Thee – Jean Berger
  5. The Morning Star – Virgil Thompson
  6. The Twenty-Third Psalm – Arthur Foote
  7. Holy Manna arr. John Carter
  8. Let Us Break Bread Together – Traditional, performed by Gabriel V Brass Quintet
  9. Ching-A-Ring Chaw arr. Irving Fine
  10. The Boatmen’s Dance arr. Irving Fine
  11. Zion’s Walls arr. Glenn Kopenen
  12. What a Friend We have in Jesus! – William Bolcolm; James E. Jordan, Jr, Organist
  13. Psalm 136 – Virgil Thomson
  14. Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal arr. Alice Parker
  15. Come, Holy Ghost – Leo Sowerby
  16. At the River arr. R. Wilding White
  17. The Best of Rooms – Randall Thompson
  18. Simple Gifts arr. Irving Fine
  19. E’en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come – Paul Manz