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An Undisturbed Evenness

Choral music 'from
a Russian cathedral' -
heard by

'... engineered to tranquillity ...'

Sacred Treasures V - From a Russian Cathedral. © 2007 Valley Entertainment

Lovers of Orthodox sacred music have been having a field day post-1989, when the collapse of the Soviet empire allowed so much repressed music to bubble forth on disc from the Eastern bloc. Those nearly twenty years have also seen the rise in popularity of the 'holy minimalists' -- composers such as Pärt, Vasks, Gorecki, and in the UK John Tavener -- and there is undeniably more than just a 'new age' market for this contemplative, meditative genre. (I have a particular fondness for a disc by the Soglaise Choir of St Petersburg, which contains the profoundest bass profundo I have yet heard!)

The release notes accompanying this disc put it in a nutshell:

The intention was to weave hymns and verses into a seamless tapestry in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and the individual elements of the compilation becomes movements in a choral symphony of timeless beauty.

Somewhat purplish prose, but that's what you get in release notes. The intention, however, is fulfilled. Although the recordings feature various choirs and are compiled from a variety of sources, everything has been engineered to an undisturbed evenness. This disc will doubtless be a balm to some and wallpaper music to others.

For example, the three pieces by Archbishop Ionafan from his Liturgy of Peace, sung by the Kyiv Chamber Choir, have such a sameness of tempo, melodic and harmonic approach, that they come across as Satie-ish -- three visions of the same thing.

Quite a different sound comes from two tracks by the Eva Quartet, Bulgarian women singing in their traditional style but with far more restraint than is heard from a Bulgarian women's choir when they really let go.

One of the immediate attractions of the disc was that there is a fair amount of twentieth-century material included, although naturally this fits into the overall style. The American composer Georgia Kelly's The Sound of Spirit is not Orthodox music, but uses techniques gleaned from it, such as the solo voice floating over a carpet of choir sound, similar to the Rachmaninov Ektenia. In fact there are four tracks from the Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov settings of the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom: one could hardly not have these stalwarts present.

Another Ektenia comes from N Frunza, this one distinguished by the contralto solo and deep bass writing, a delight for lovers of low voice.

Listen -- N Frunza: Ektenia of Fervent Supplication
(track 3, 0:35-1:06) © 2007 Valley Entertainment

In contrast, the high, pure women's voices of Sisask's Dominus Vobiscum sound remarkably like trebles at the start of the track.

Listen -- Urmas Sisask: Dominus Vobiscum
(track 10, 0:00-1:00) © 2007 Valley Entertainment

Contrasted with the deep basses again, they provide a model of the clarity, spaciousness and purity this kind of writing can attain. Sung, incidentally, by Finns -- the Chamber Choir Eesti Projekt.

The disc also contains seventeenth century and twelfth century Georgian pieces, and pieces by Kedrov, Sviridov and Konstantinov; all, as mentioned, engineered to tranquillity. Perfect stuff for late-night listening from flat on the floor, but aficionados need have no fear either -- this is the real thing, and an interesting enough mix of choirs and styles not to bog down despite the slowness of tempi.

Copyright © 7 June 2009 Paul Sarcich,
London UK









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