Brilliant Russian sacred choral music

A wonderful concert by the Hermitage Ensemble of Russian singing sacred hymns and folk songs in the beautiful little Sibton Church of St Peter in Suffolk (the ruins of a Cistercian Abbey can be seen close to the church) took me down the overgrown path of Russian sacred choral music.

Two outstanding recent releases from the innovative Dutch super-budget label Brilliant Classics are highly recommended. The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Paris is famous for its tradition of Russian Orthodox chant. In 1967, under their director Evgeni Ivanovitz Evetz, they recorded an anthology of Russian Orthodox Church Music. Evetz was born in Poland of Russian parents, and his status as a Russian 'displaced person,' meant that he made his reputation as a refugee building and conducting choirs, first in Morocco and then in Paris.

The anthology features composers ranging from Rachmaninov and Arensky to many lesser-known figures, and has now been released as a double CD. The sound isn't demonstration quality and the documentation is minimal, which is a shame as it would be nice to learn more about some of the more obscure composers, but at around £7 (US$13) for two hours and forty minutes of outstanding, and authentic, choral singing this is yet another Brilliant bargain.

Rachmaninov's Vespers Op 37 for unaccompanied choir, based on the Russian Orthodox All Night Vigil Service, is one of the works on yet another outstanding Brilliant Classics release. The Vespers are sung by the National Academic Choir of Ukraine in a fine recording made in Kiev Cathedral in 2000. But it is the coupling of the lesser-known Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, Op 31 sung by the Russian State Symphony Capella directed by Valery Polyansky which makes this 3CD box so recommendable.

The Liturgy of St John Chrysostom was composed in 1910 and is the first of Rachmaninov's three major choral works, the others being The Bells (1913) and the Vespers (1915). In the Orthodox Church the term 'liturgy' is the equivalent to the Catholic Mass, and shares the major elements with the Roman rite. Full texts are provided, and at a price of around £10 (US$18) for almost three hours of singing, including three other Rachmaninov rarities, this is yet another outstanding Brilliant Classics bargain.

It may well have been Rachmaninoff’s great admiration for Tchaikovsky which inspired him to write sacred music., just as Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio, Op. 50 had inspired him to compose a piano trio of his own, Tchaikovsky’s Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, Op. 41 and his setting of the All-Night Vigil, Op. 52 were models for Rachmaninoff’s own liturgical compositions. It is a puzzle as to why Tchaikovsky's two sacred masterpieces are not better known today, but once again Brilliant Classics are poised to, at least partially, rectify that with their recent release of the Liturgy coupled with Alexander Gretchaninov's excellent setting of the Vespers Liturgy Op. 59. This is a 2CD set, the ensemble for the Tchaikovsky is once again the National Choir of Ukraine, while the Gretchaninov is sung by the Bulgarian Mixed Choir. Again it is easy to find these 2CDs for less than £10 ($18) delivered from Caiman Ivia Amazon marketplace) and others.

This music, and these recordings, speaks to us with a passion and directness which is rarely found in our Western world. A little while ago I featured the hand-crafted Bible that is being created by James Pepper at Highland Park Methodist Church in Dallas, and all the illustrations with this article are taken from the Pepper Bible. I recently received the following email from James, and I finish with it because it speaks with the same passion and directness:

Pliable - MP 3, yes I am not that advanced. I can still play my grandfathers one sided 78 of Enrico Caruso and a couple of Spike Jones records, sometimes when I am feeling technical I pull out the short wave radio and listen to the BBC. My TV set glows from the vacuum tubes and I write bibles.

I can still remember as a child a room full of Americans all sitting in our living room in a cottage we rented in Bermuda listening to the World Series because for some odd reason our radio could pick it up and it was the only one on the island that could! The place was packed!

Saint Seraphim is a big thing around here (Pliable - this is a reference to my article Orthodox Church of Saint Seraphim of Sarov). The local orthodox church is named St. Seraphim's, the bishop is a former Baptist preacher so its interesting; And they have an icon painter from Kiev working on the place. Also there is a St. Seraphim's in Moscow that our church is co-ordinating with in our missionary activities in Kazakhstan. We operate a church in Karaganda, we support the local missionaries, a few years ago we bought them a yurt. Karaganda was a gulag but is now a medical school and the students come from all over the Muslim world and they learn English by reading the Bible and we convert a lot of them. One of our missionaries started 30 churches in one year by converting Chieftain. Its very remote.

We went down to the Russian Orthodox Church on Good Friday and stood for the liturgy, it really is something to see. Previously I had made the mistake of kneeling for two hours which is really bad on your legs if you are not used to it. Injured while praying.

* Russian Orthodox Church Music is a 2CD set on Brilliant Classics 5029365765626
* Rachmaninov's Vespers and Liturgy of St John Chrysostom is a 3CD set on Brilliant Classics 5029365621526
* Tchaikovsky Liturgy of St John Chrysostom coupled with the Gretchaninov Vespers is on Brilliant Classics 5028421997629
* Brilliant Classics Russian Archives are well worth visiting for some bargain Gilels, Richter, Kissin and Rostopovich, while travelling away from the Russian theme their new release of the Reger and Hindemith Clarinet Quintets is also a gem.
* All illustrations, with permission from the Pepper Bible, see more via this link.
* The Hermitage Ensemble aim to bring the Russian traditions of church music and the motets of the Eastern Church closer to western audiences. More details from their web site where MP3 audio samples are also available.
* As well as sacred music the Hermitage Ensemble also perform Russian folksongs. Which takes us down another very worthwhile overgrown path to Jazz på Ryska (Jazz in Russia) by the superb jazz pianist Jan Johansson, click on this link for the full story and audio samples.

Now playing - G. I. Gurdjieff, Sacred Hymns played by Keith Jarrett (piano). Although Gurdjieff is often linked with Sufism he claimed to have studied more than 200 religions, and as a boy sung in his local Russian Orthodox Church in Kars (now part of Turkey), and his compositions are linked to Greek liturgical music. Keith Jarrett made this recording in 1980 with the support of followers of Gurdjieff. It is an important, and very undervalued, document.

Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to 'L'Orgue Mystique' - the music and 'L'Orgue Mystique' - the images


Jerome Langguth said…
Yes, I love that recording. It is, as you say, very undervalued. Thanks for reminding me.
Unknown said…
Thank You for putting up the article on my Bible project! I am looking for a way to publish it so that everyone can see it. I thought on a CD would make it accessible to everyone and if anyone has suggestions that would be helpful, then please suggest them. The Gospels are 565 pages long and 303 pages have illuminations on them, Luke has 25 full page carpet pages and over 650 inhabited initials. I have an interlinear polyglot in Greek, Latin and English, in John Chapters 18 and 19. The Bible was on display last year at the Biblical Arts Museum in Dallas and my Congressman and the Speaker of the House are going to try to get it put on display in the Capitol, when the security dies down in Washington. Recent events have reduced venues open to the public.
Thanks again, and I put a link to you on my website.

James G. Pepper
Biblical Scribe
Chandler Branch said…
Thank you for this post on Russian sacred choral music. What a great treasure this genre of music is, both spiritually and aesthetically. Of the pieces you mentioned, I am only familiar with Rachmoninov’s Vespers. I wasn’t aware of his Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, nor of the other recommended works by Tchaikovsky and Gretchaninov. I look forward to discovering them! And I plan to include them in a future post on my blog for which I’m gathering information on some great but lesser-known works of sacred music.

Chandler Branch, Exe. Dir.
Soli Deo Gloria

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