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Ikon - Music for the Soul and Spirit
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Rejoice, O Virgin (Bogoroditse Devo) [3:15]; We Hymn Thee (Tebe poyem) [2:22]; The Cherubic Hymn (Izhe kheruvimi) [5:01]
John TAVENER (b. 1944)
Song for Athene [6:18]; Exhortation [3:17]; Kohima [1:49]
Arvo PÄRT (b. 1935)
De Profundis [6:21]; The Woman with the Alabaster Box [6:05]; O Weisheit [1:40]
James MACMILLAN (b. 1959)
A Child’s Prayer [4:03]; A New Song [5:43]

Victor KALINNIKOV (1870-1927)
Lord, now lettest Thou (Ninye otpushchayevshi) [2:48]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Pater Noster [1:25]; Ave Maria [2:02]

Pavel CHESNOKOV (1877-1944)
Bless the Lord, O My Soul (Blagoslovi, dushe moya, Ghospoda) [2:22]; We Hymn Thee (Tebe poyem) [2:59]
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
Nunc Dimittis [3:33]

The Sixteen/Harry Christophers
rec.25-27 October 2005, Church of St. Giles, Cripplegate, London. DDD
UNIVERSAL UCJ 476 3160 [63:09]



The music on this CD represents repertoire not usually associated with The Sixteen - expanded to twenty-nine singers on this occasion. Much of it is music either written expressly for, or inspired by, the Russian Orthodox liturgy.

The items by Rachmaninov, for example, are taken from his two major Orthodox liturgical works. Rejoice, O Virgin - I’ll use the English title used in the jewel case listing - is from his wonderful All-Night Vigil, Op. 37, while the other two pieces are to be found in his Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, Op. 31. The former, a haunting and deeply expressive setting, beautifully sung here, makes for a moving opening to this recital.

Also direct from Russian Orthodoxy come the pieces by Kalinnikov and Chesnokov. The Kalinnikov is a setting of the text known in the Western Christian tradition as the Nunc Dimittis. I hadn’t come across this piece before but I liked it very much. It’s simple and serene, with some radiant harmonies. Chesnokov was a pupil of Taneyev and came to be regarded as one of the leading Russian choral conductors. A prolific composer, he wrote over five hundred pieces. His setting of the Cherubic Hymn uses the same text as the Rachmaninov piece. Chesnokov’s concise setting is solemn and awe-struck.

Stravinsky’s Pater Noster was originally composed in 1926, using Russian words, but he revised it in 1949, substituting the Latin text performed here. At the same time he revised in a similar fashion the Ave Maria, which he’d set in Russian in 1934. Incidentally, there is a third short religious work, Credo, composed in 1932 and, similarly revised in a Latin version in 1949. It’s a pity room could not have been found for that piece in this recital as well since it only lasts for about six minutes. Of the two that we have here I much prefer Ave Maria, which has a lovely melodic flow and very clearly comes from the Rachmaninov lineage of liturgical music. Pater Noster is more terse in style; I’ve written the words “fierce chanting” in my listening notes.

The English composer, John Tavener, has been greatly influenced by the music of the Orthodox Church and, indeed, he has written quite a few pieces specifically for the Orthodox liturgy. His Song for Athene acquired worldwide réclame when it was sung at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997 - when the shuffling feet of the guardsmen as they carried the coffin out of the church made an unforgettable quiet counterpoint to the music. The piece was actually composed four years earlier to a BBC commission and it was dedicated to the memory of a friend of the composer’s, who had tragically died at a young age. It’s a fine and moving piece and Christophers and his singers do it very well.

Exhortation was commissioned for the Royal British Legion’s annual Festival of Remembrance in 2003. It’s an extremely moving and successful setting of Laurence Binyon’s well known verse, ‘They shall not grow old’. The piece is simple and direct and makes all the stronger an impact as a result. It’s not clear from the accompanying notes whether Kohima is intended by Tavener to be a companion piece, nor are we told when it was written. However, it makes an extremely apposite pairing.

The pieces by Arvo Pärt include De Profundis, a setting of Psalm 130. This is scored for men’s voices accompanied by organ and percussion. The accompanying instruments produce a most arresting, ghostly sound at the start. The piece builds cumulatively and if I describe the music as repetitious I don’t use the word in a pejorative sense for it is repetitious by design and the effect is strangely compelling. As the words of the psalm move from dark despair to hope so the mood of Pärt’s music changes too. The performance is very powerful. The Woman with the Alabaster Box is unaccompanied. It’s a choral narration, in English, of a passage from St. Matthew’s Gospel. The use of rests is an extremely important element of the music. The idiom is modern but it’s also archaic at the same time and at the end it resolves satisfyingly onto a major chord. O Weisheit (‘O Wisdom’) is a setting in German of the first of the so-called Great ‘O’ Magnificat antiphons, sung at Vespers in the days leading up to Christmas. Given the playing time of the CD it’s a bit strange to find just one of Pärt’s set included.

Holst’s Nunc Dimittis was composed for R.R. Terry’s celebrated Westminster Cathedral choir and was first performed in the Cathedral on Easter Sunday 1915. It then fell into complete neglect and the manuscript was lost. However, the composer’s daughter, Imogen, was able to reconstruct the piece in 1974. Its neglect is, frankly, inexplicable. It’s a lovely piece that moves from a rapt opening via a joyful central section to an affirmative close.

Finally, two pieces by James MacMillan. The Sixteen have done his music before: they commissioned and have recorded (Coro COR16010) his O Bone Jesu (2002), an astonishing homage to the 19-part setting of the same text by MacMillan’s fellow Scot, Robert Carver (c 1487-1566). The two pieces included here are firmly rooted, like O Bone Jesu, in MacMillan’s devout Catholic faith. A Child’s Prayer was composed in 1996 in response to the tragedy of the slaying by a deranged gunman of primary school children in Dunblane, Scotland in March of that year. Two soprano soloists sing the text against a background of the a cappella choir repeatedly singing the word ‘welcome.’ Then the choir switch to singing ecstatically the word ‘joy’ and the mood of the music moves from keening sorrow to joy-in-sorrow. When the choir reverts to singing ‘welcome’ in the background it is in a less grief-stricken way than previously. It’s a daring piece since MacMillan is completely unapologetic about displaying in it his belief in life after death - and why should he be apologetic? I find it immensely satisfying, both musically and theologically, and very moving.

No less moving is A New Song. This was commissioned to celebrate the seventieth birthday of the commissioner’s father and in memory of his deceased mother. The text is taken from Psalm 96 and MacMillan not only shows once again his mastery of choral writing but also provides a most effective gentle organ accompaniment. It’s another enriching piece.

The music on this disc is very demanding but The Sixteen are on fine form and they perform all of it superbly. I suppose some might argue that they make an English sound that isn’t quite right for the Russian music but I don’t think that this matters in the slightest. For me, the singing is first rate and that’s what matters. The singing is captured in a very good recording. Full texts and translations are provided. The notes, by Jeremy Nicholas, are succinct and adequate.

This is a most enjoyable and rewarding disc.

John Quinn


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