Maximilian STEINBERG (1883-1946) Passion Week, Op. 13 (1923)
The Clarion Choir/Steven Fox
rec. 28- 30 October, 2014, 3 January 2015, 13 January 2016, Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, New York, USA
Church Slavonic texts, transliterations and English translations included NAXOS 8.573665 [54:53]
In 2015 I was bowled over by the discovery of Maximilian Steinberg’s Passion Week in its premiere recording by Cappella Romana and Alexander Lingas
(review). Now a second professional American choir, the New York-based Clarion Choir, has recorded the work too. It seems from the Naxos booklet that both choirs discovered the score around the same time giving complete performances of it in April 2014. Cappella Romana are credited with the concert premiere, in Portland, Oregon, while the Clarion Choir presented it in an “open reading” in New York.
I covered the background to the work in some detail when I wrote about the Cappella Romana release so rather than repeat myself, may I refer readers to that review?
There are some important differences between the two releases. Cappella Romana offered a coupling in the shape of some arrangements of Chant for Holy Week by Steinberg’s teacher and father-in-law, Rimsky-Korsakov. That was a highly relevant coupling though I found Steinberg’s music more interesting. The Cappella Romana reading of Passion Week itself plays for 47:04. The reason why this new performance appears longer is that Steven Fox has chosen to preface five of Steinberg’s movements with the chants – one Kievan and four Znamenny – on which Steinberg based his pieces. These five chants account for just under ten minutes of playing time and it’s very interesting to hear them as prefaces to Steinberg’s settings.
Both choirs comprise professional singers and the ensembles are similarly sized. The Clarion Choir has 33 singers in its ranks (9/8/7/9) while Cappella Romana is a slightly smaller group (6/6/6/8). Both are absolutely superb and to be truthful I find it well-nigh impossible to express a preference between the two in terms of accomplishment.
There are some differences, often marginal, between the two performances. In the second movement, ‘Behold, the Bridegroom comes’, Alexander Lingas adopts a somewhat more flowing tempo and I rather prefer that. Later, in ‘Of Thy Mystical Supper’ which is Steinberg’s sixth movement, Lingas’s performance is even more expansive than Fox’s and again Lingas is a bit more to my taste. That movement is track 9 on the Naxos disc owing to the chant insertions. Such differences between the two interpretations are pretty marginal, however – and preferences are subjective.
Both choirs give marvellous accounts of ‘When the Glorious Disciples’ (Naxos track 5) and each ensemble responds wonderfully to the radiant music in ‘The Master’s Hospitality’ (Naxos track 6). The last two movements are memorable in both performances. The singing of the Clarion Choir is rather more broad and forthright at the start of the penultimate piece, ‘Arise, O God’ but the expansive performances of both choirs impress as the movement unfolds. The final movement, ‘Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence’, crowns Steinberg’s score and the respective choirs rise splendidly to the occasion. In both performances the singing is rapt and then in each case the transcendent conclusion sets the seal on a magnificent performance.
Both choirs are very well recorded. Choice may well be dictated by the extra music. It’s very good to hear five of the original chants that inspired Steinberg though each time this involves two consecutive settings of the same words and some listeners may prefer to listen to Steinberg’s music without interruption.
Naxos has done a good job with the documentation. The texts and translations are provided and there’s a very thorough note by Vladimir Morosan.
If I were forced to make a choice I think I would opt for the Cappella Romana recording but the margins are indeed fine. I just think we’re fortunate that this magnificent score is now available in two very fine recordings.