Western takes on Russian music
These are the words of Sergei Rachmaninov, and his intense patriotism means that Russian performances of his sacred music in particular are considered as definitive. But today I will be looking at two Western performances which prove that there is life beyond the poor recorded sound and wobbly bass lines that are the hallmarks of many Russian performances of his liturgical works. Rachmaninov’s Vespers needs little introduction, but the 1999 EMI recording by Stephen Cleobury and the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge definitely does, so who better to do that than the Producer Simon Kiln?
‘There are of course many fine versions of Rachmaninov’s Vespers with mixed-voice choirs, both within the Russian tradition (for which the work was written) and outside it. This is the first to feature a choir of boys’ and men’s voices only. The result, whose point of departure was a particularly fine crop of low basses at King’s that year, blends one of the finest choirs in the English choral tradition with some of the finest music from the Russian tradition. Furthermore the beautiful acoustics at King’s College Chapel are ideal for this repertoire, since they are not unlike those of a Russian Orthodox cathedral. This disc also breaks new ground in that the recording was originally made in surround sound. Though release in that format awaits further developments in domestic audio technology, the listener should already derive some benefit in the enhanced stereo sound of the present CD.’
Those notes were written in 1997. The CD is still in the catalogue at full price, although there are some good deals from internet resellers. The performance is a serious work of scholarship with a credit given to language coach Xenia de Berner. Any recording made in the peerless acoustics of King’s Chapel is a joy to behold, this one is a double delight as it gives a fresh perspective on a very familiar work; shame about the ghastly cover though.
Much less well known is Rachmaninov’s other liturgical masterpiece, his earlier setting of the Russian Orthodox Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. I have previously written about a Russian recording of the Divine Liturgy, but one of the early delights of 2007 has been a new recording of this inspirational work by the Flemish Radio Choir directed by Kaspars Putnins. But it is not quite accurate to describe this as a ‘Western take’ as director Kaspars Putnins is a Latvian who graduated from that country’s Academy of Music, and who has worked extensively with Latvian choral groups.
This excellent new CD of the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom comes from the enterprising Spanish independent label Glossa whose recordings have featured here before. Bonus marks for an excellent essay on the Divine Liturgy in the sleeve notes, but a black mark for the absence of any artist biographies. The acoustics of the Jezuïetenkerk in Heverlee, Belgium sound glorious, with engineering, production and mastering in the hands of Manuel Mohino who is also responsible for many of Alia Vox's glorious sounding productions. And while corporate EMI are still waiting for the new technology smart independent Glossa have it. If you have the replay equipment you can bask in the Divine Liturgy in five channel SACD Surround Sound, although you will need a microscope to find the SACD logo on the sleeve.
These two Western takes on great Russian liturgical music are both pure absolute delights. It is unfortunate that today Rachmaninov is in the shadow cast by the media spotlight on his compatriot Shostakovich. I certainly don’t agree that political persecution is a prerequisite of musical greatness, but if it is Rachmaninov is a fully paid up member, and was described by the Soviet regime as: the servant and instrument of the proletariat’s worst enemies.’ As a result of the Soviet religious persecution his 1910 Liturgy of St John Chrysostom was forgotten, and it is only in recent years that it has been revealed as a masterpiece. This new recording by the Flemish Radio Choir and Kaspars Putnins helps to restore it to its rightful place – unmissable.
* St John Chrysostom (c. 345-407) was a very rare person, he was both a music critic and a saint. He differentiated between good and harmful music with the words: 'Lest demons introducing lascivious songs should overthrow everything, God established the psalms, in order that they might provide both pleasure and profit.'
For more on Rachmaninov’s liturgical masterpieces, and some more beautiful images, read Brilliant Russian sacred choral music.
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