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Kurt SANDER (b. 1969)
The Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom (2017) [90:06]
Protodeacon Vadim Gan (bass), PaTRAM Institute Singers / Peter Jermihov
rec. 2017, New Gračanica Church, New Gračanica Serbian Orthodox Monastery, Third Lake, Illinois, USA
English text included

Last year I greatly admired a disc of music by Pavel Chesnokov which originated from the PaTRAM Institute (review). The disc was equally admired by two of my colleagues and went on to be selected as MusicWeb International’s Recording of the year for 2018. On that occasion the music was sung by the PaTRAM Institute Male Choir; this time we hear the PaTRAM Institute Singers who are an SATB choir (6/6/5/8). The performance is conducted by Peter Jermihov who, so far as I’m concerned, has excellent credentials when it comes to Orthodox church music: he was the conductor of a seriously impressive recording of Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil which I reviewed a couple of years ago.

I have the impression that the Orthodox diaspora over many years has meant that the liturgical – and concert – performance of Orthodox church music has put down good roots in parts of the USA. The composer Kurt Sander relates in the booklet that he became a convert to Orthodox Christianity almost by accident. He was an established, professional singer in an Episcopalian church choir when he was invited to join the choir who were to sing at an Orthodox wedding. His interest aroused, he eventually converted to the Orthodox faith in 1993. Since then he has composed music in a variety of genres, including some church music, and in 2016 he was asked by Peter Jermihov to compose an English language setting of The Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom.

I referred back to the notes which Ivan Moody wrote for the Corydon Singers’ excellent recording of Rachmaninov’s The Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, Op 31 (review). From this I learned that the Liturgy, which is the Orthodox eucharistic service, has four forms in regular use. Of these, the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom is used on most Sundays and days of the week. Moody explains that when a setting of one of the Liturgies is sung in concert or on a recording it’s often the case that certain passages are cut; these tend to be some of the Deacon’s chanted passages and sections of the Eucharistic Prayer. That doesn’t happen here. Sander has set the complete Liturgy and this recording includes everything. That means that you get several sections of music, the Litanies in particular, where one of the ministers, usually the Deacon, chants the prayers and the choir make responses. If that sounds a recipe for repetition let me assure you that’s not the case. Sander varies his music – and especially that of the choral responses – a great deal so there’s plenty of variety and interest. This is a release that demands patience: you have to immerse yourself in the experience by listening through; it’s worth doing so.

This is, I understand, the first complete musical setting of the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom in English and it’s a considerable achievement. So far as I’m aware. Kurt Sander doesn’t use any traditional Orthodox chant melodies in his setting but the music still sounds authentic. In a booklet note Peter Jermihov tells us that Sander has achieved structural unity through the use of leitmotif. I must confess that I haven’t yet identified those motifs but I have the very definite sense through listening that the work is tightly organised. One thing that intrigued me was the composer’s comment that when he began composition, he resisted any temptation to dive in and set any of the obvious key passages, such as the Cherubic Hymn. Instead, as he says, he focussed initially on “the little elements of the Liturgy – the litanies, responses, the short one-sentence choral utterances etc. In so doing, I came to the realization that these were actually the fibers that hold the work together.” That, of course, is the most compelling argument of all as to why Sanders’ setting should be experienced in its entirety. By the way, though the recording is divided into 31 separate tracks, many of the movements – for want of a better word – segue into each other so one definitely gets a feel for the flow of a service. In this connection it’s important to note a comment made in the booklet by Peter Jermihov. “The objective [of the recording] is not to replicate an act of worship but to create for the listener a continuous, dramatic, and in a sense theatric unfolding of musical events that lead to a cathartic climax – the Holy Eucharist.”

The singers taking part are, I believe, all professionals. I’m not entirely sure if all of them are members of the Orthodox church, though I suspect they are. That suspicion is aroused because, hearing them sing, I was struck not just by the technical accomplishment but by a sense of belief in what they were singing about. That’s pretty important because a lot of Sander’s music is devotional in tone. These singers make it sound devotional, though in a controlled, highly disciplined way. The choir makes a lovely and very well integrated sound. They have an impressive dynamic range and when the music demands it, they sing with strong attack and no little fervour. I don’t know if any of the 8 bass singers are Octavists but quite often one can hear a very deep, quietly sonorous and ideally weighted foundation to the chording; that’s most noticeable on several occasions when a piece ends quietly. The important part of the Deacon is sung by Protodeacon Vadim Gan. We first hear him very near the start and his cavernous tone impresses at once. He’s an imposing and eloquent presence throughout. Several other solo roles are taken by various male members of the choir and all do very well. Incidentally, the composer is a member of the bass section.

As I said earlier, Sander’s music seems very authentic to me. It is also very beautiful; I think, for example of the rich and sonorous setting of The Beatitudes, which gradually increases in fervour before achieving a quiet ending. The Cherubic Hymn starts off in a mood of hushed adoration but the music expands most impressively before the first part of the Hymn falls back, arch-like, into serene supplication. Then at ‘That we may receive the King of all’ there’s real ardour in the music. Not only is this piece very fine in its context, but it’s also impressive as an independent piece. As the Liturgy approaches the Eucharistic Prayer, the ‘Holy, Holy’ is exultant. Later on, the setting of the ‘Our Father’ is fairly subdued; it’s a very prayerful setting. I was struck also by ‘Praise the Lord from the heavens’. The words might lead one to expect exultant music but Sander’s response is initially humble and quiet, though the cries of ‘Alleluia’ towards the end are radiant and fervent.

The Liturgy ends with several joyful choral exclamations. ‘We have seen the light’ is joyous, as is the next piece, ‘Let our mouths be filled with Thy praise’; the latter, by the way, is one of the relatively rare examples of fast-moving music in the whole Liturgy. At the very end the Deacon pronounces a benediction after which the choir brings the Liturgy to a close with jubilant music. In these last two paragraphs I’ve just mentioned some of what struck me as the musical pearls in this setting but, really, it’s almost invidious to single out individual movements. It’s the cumulative effect of the whole Liturgy that is the most striking thing of all.

The singing is marvellous throughout and I have the sense that the music could not be in better hands than those of conductor Peter Jermihov. As for the recording by Soundmirror, it strikes me as well-nigh ideal. It’s been engineered by John Newton and produced by Blanton Alspaugh and they have presented the singers and the music expertly. The sound is very truthful and very well balanced and I have the impression that the natural resonance of the New Gračanica Church has been used to impart just the right warmth round the sound of the voices without any loss of clarity. The documentation is full and informative and everything in the booklet is very clearly laid out.

Kurt Sander’s Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom is an impressive and moving composition and it could scarcely have been better served than on this recording, which is excellent in every way.

John Quinn