Blessed Art Thou Among Women, The PaTRAM Institute Singers,
Peter Jermihov, conductor
(Reference Recordings FR-737)
By Kurt Sander, DM
Professor of Music Theory and Composition
Northern Kentucky University
I have read, in more than one place, the earnest suggestion that we are living in an epochal time in the history of performed Russian Orthodox choral music. While such a bold assertion may be a point of debate, there is no denying that something good is happening here in our own time. In just the past decade, we have seen numerous major CD releases in this genre by some of the finest choirs in the world, many of whom have been nominated or have won the coveted Grammy award in the choral album category.
Most recently, we have seen the inspired work of PaTRAM™, an organization with a self-stated mission to “spread beautiful liturgical music throughout the world [to] enlighten our collective minds and hearts.” While they are certainly not alone in recording intoxicatingly beautiful CDs of Russian Orthodox choral music, PaTRAM’s vision seems focused less on exploration and more on explication, intending to offer a highly artistic and professionally-produced model for how this music should be interpreted and performed. For PaTRAM, this is not the exotic music of another culture or time but something that it calls its own. In this sense, these CD releases are intended to be truly historic, providing paradigms of performance practice for future conductors to consider and model. This is no small feat, but PaTRAM has the talent and the resources to make it happen.
The PaTRAM organization is the brainchild of philanthropist/entrepreneurs Alexis and Katya Lukianov who, as Executive Producers, set out on a mission “to foster the authentic and original splendor of Russian Orthodox choral music.” Upon hearing the news of a third CD release from the PaTRAM Institute Singers™, under the Reference Recording label, I thought of the old Russian saying: Bog lubit Тroitsu, which literally translated means, “God loves the Trinity.” This phrase is said less as a theological pronouncement and more as an affirmation of the specialness that is found in groups of three. After PaTRAM’s first two Grammy-nominated releases, the expectations for this third release are obviously quite high.
On first sight, it appears that this third CD titled, Blessed Art Thou among Women, is quite special indeed. The eminent conductor Peter Jermihov returns to lead the ensemble through a mosaic of liturgical and liturgically-inspired selections of Russian choral music, all written in honor of the Virgin Mary or Theotokos (a Greek word meaning “Birthgiver of God”) as the Orthodox are more inclined to call her. Jermihov has assumed a rightful place as a leading figure in the choral conducting world with numeral accolades including a recent Grammy nomination in the “Best Choral Performance” category. The repertoire here resides firmly in Jermihov’s “home turf” and one would be hard-pressed to find another who is equally capable or gifted with this genre.
Following the traditions of prior PaTRAM releases, the handsome liner notes, authored by Jermihov himself, provide a wealth of material for the listener to study including historical insights and a rich background on the works and composers, many of whom are not well-known to most listeners. The length of the recording is a generous 79 minutes and features 24 diverse selections ranging from the Italianate sounds of Vasily Titov to the work of newcomer Sergey Zheludkov, who is the only living composer featured on the CD. Many of these works traverse familiar territory for avid fans of Russian Orthodox choral music, but for most listeners, the vast majority of these works will likely be new discoveries. There are several gems on this CD, so be assured that hard core fans of Orthodox choral music will not want to pass this recording by.
Like the first two PaTRAM releases on Reference Recordings, this album was recorded and produced by Blanton Alspaugh of Soundmirror, Inc. whose multiple Grammy Awards for choral recordings could fill a medium-sized pantry. Those who are familiar with the first two PaTRAM offerings may be initially taken aback at the acoustical signature of this particular release. Unlike the highly reflective soundscapes of the first two PaTRAM releases, this one is noticeably drier by comparison. The recording took place in the nave of the St. Alexander Nevsky Diocesan Cathedral, an Orthodox church in New Jersey, which is not particularly large in size compared to its Russian prototypes. The hardwood floor of the structure softens some of the brilliance of the ensemble, and the lower ceiling height of the space does reduce the reverb tail somewhat. All of this is not to say that what is heard on the recording is an inferior sound, compared to the first two CDs, rather, the space creates a kind of intimacy in the sound that is capable of achieving the kind of clarity that often suffers in larger spaces.
Upon first hearing the choral sound, I have the impression that Jermihov is consciously cultivating an alternative to the stereotypical bulk we associate—perhaps, unfairly—with many Slavic choirs. The sopranos on this recording have an agility that could never occur under the weight of heavy vibrato. They are expressively light and move with flame-like buoyancy from low to high notes. The altos exude a warm confidence in their tone that never ventures into something overly-assertive. The tenors are simply seraphic. Like the middle layer of icing in a cake, this section provides a luscious sweetness to the ensemble sound. And then there are the basses—the foundation of the choral pyramid that has long defined the Russian style. This propensity toward super low singing has caused the world to regard Russian basses as extraordinary creatures of legend. This CD will not disappoint such believers. Outside of Russia, I would wager that this CD represents the strongest assemblage of low voices since Robert Shaw recorded Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil on the Telarc label back in 1990. Overall, the choir’s diction is clear and, despite a few stray occasions, the choir sounds authentically Russian in terms of Slavonic pronunciation.
The CD opens with a traditional bell-ringing recorded on location at the St. Alexander Nevsky Diocesan Cathedral. The sound of these particular bells creates a dense troposphere of C minor which eventually yields to the bright C major sound of the Bortniansky’s opening choral fanfare, “Deva Dnes (Today the Virgin Gives Birth).” This creates a stunning contrast which makes for a festive opening to the rich musical journey that follows. As the CD continues, we are offered an alternative setting of the same text we heard on the first track, this one by the composer Alexander Kastalsky.. While the work is similar in tone to Bortniansky’s setting, those elements that make the work unique are lost here to some degree. This is not the fault of the conductor or choir, but perhaps more of a strategic misstep in terms of the placement on the CD. The B-flat major key of Kastalsky’s setting cannot help but lose its luster when following the bright C major sonorities of the first track.
The third track features a squeaky-clean performance of “Beznevestnaya Devo (O Virgin Unwedded)” by Vasily Titov, an early 18th-century composer of the so-called “Russian Baroque” school which was heavily influenced by the Italian styles of the day. Fans of early music will especially love this setting which stylistically is closer the music of Gabrieli than it is to Gretchaninov. The ascetic restraint of the ensemble is on full display here as they carefully balance the intricate polyphonic lines with utmost clarity.
At this point in the recording, listeners may reach the hasty conclusion that this CD is simply another recording of standard Russian choral fare, albeit a very fine one. The next track dispels further thoughts of this kind as we are swept into the sonic world of Georgy Sviridov and his setting of “Velichaniye Bogoroditsy (A Hymn of Praise to the Mother of God).” This post-Revolution composer is primarily known in the West for his inspired secular choruses. Yet, his sacred oeuvre is even more impressive and should be a plotted destination for many choirs looking for an alternative to the oft, perhaps overly-performed, Rachmaninov All-Night Vigil. While not a premiere recording, the mixed choir version of this challenging work will likely be new to most listeners. It is arguably the most profound artistic statement on the recording and Jermihov does a splendid job imprinting upon the listener’s consciousness. He brings out the beauty of sustained sonorities like stain on the grain of a finely-sanded piece of wood, bringing out all of its intricate shadings and textures.
This incredibly powerful composition explores the kind of beauty one only finds in the extreme ranges of the human voice. The bass section assumes a metaphysical-like presence through a series of low Ds, while the cirrus-like sopranos trumpet the motivic theme on the word raduysia, or “rejoice,” in purely angelic fashion. Soprano Fotina Naumenko sings a fleeting solo and the end is like an ascending dove soaring to a stunning high B with astonishing finesse. Conductors would be well-served to explore the writing of Sviridov as the true successor to Rachmaninov’s choral vision.
Devotees of the composer Pavel Chesnokov will appreciate the inclusion of his “Presvyataya Bogoroditse Spasi Nas (O Most Holy Theotokos, Save Us)." Despite the many versions already released on various Russian labels, one would be hard-pressed to find a cleaner interpretation than this version under Jermihov’s direction nor will one find a more room-shaking low B from the octavists who firmly establish the bass section on a bedrock of granite. Protodeacon Leonid Roschko brings an additional element of authenticity to the work with his heartfelt and rustic invocations.
There are other rare finds on this CD which any true fan of choral music would not want to pass by. One of these gems is a work penned by the young Russian composer Sergey Zheludkov who sets the hymn “Ne Rydai Mne, Mati (Do not Lament Me, O Mother)” which is one of the most emotionally powerful moments in the service of Holy Saturday. The work is written for choir and a bass soloist, performed here by famed American basso-profundo Glenn Miller. Miller is a highly-distinguished member of the “100 Hz and Under Club,” and his extensive involvement with Russian Orthodox music has given him an international reputation as an artist extraordinaire.
Despite the numerous low Cs and a tessitura that would make Nicholai Ghiaurov sweat, this work does not come across as any kind of novelty or compositional gimmick. When one gets past the shock of low frequencies, the beauty of the work takes center stage, helped in part by Miller’s sensitive singing. What makes Miller one of the truly great low basses of our time is not simply that he has the low notes; it is that he truly understands the innate spirituality of this music and is able to illumine it with sincerity and personal
The choral part that accompanies him is not simply a textural background. One hears the impressive amount of energy each voice expends in order to maintain the linear direction of the individual melodic lines. With all of the low sounds of this work, one might overlook the sopranos’ high B-flat, were it not for the sheer angelic precision of their combined voices. The sopranos here sparkle like light on the surface of a great body of water. The overall effect makes for one of the most stunning moments on the entire recording. This moment, alone, it is worth the price of the CD. Remember the name Zheludkov. Â I suspect you will be hearing more from him in the years to come.
Those whose knowledge of Rachmaninov’s sacred music only includes the All-Night Vigil and Liturgy will want to take a close listen to the composer’s setting of “V Molitvakh Neusypayushshchuyu Bogoroditsu (The Theotokos Who is Ever-Vigilant in Prayer).” Like his All-Night Vigil, this work was written under the consultation and guidance of esteemed members of the New Moscow Synodal School. One can detect a certain nomadic quality to the melodic ideas that emulate the Synodal approach. In terms of form, it seems to follow the structure of the 18th-century sacred choral concerto popularized by the composer Dmitri Bortniansky. Bortniansky’s concertos enjoyed popularity in their time, but have not aged particularly well, largely due to their rather hackneyed character. Rachmaninov must have sensed the potential unruliness inherent in this genre because he seems to temper moments of excess with longer sustained pitches-- another trademark of the Synodal writing style. Even so, the work embarks quite a compositional itinerary. In the wrong hands, this piece could easily have produced something rather unwieldy, with the potential to crumble under its own weight. But Jermihov understands Rachmaninov, to be sure. He knows every one of the pressure valves built into the score and uses them to release releasing excess energy at just the right time. At the end of the work, we can appreciate this successful journey with many fond memories.
Another highlight of this CD is the brief, but delightful, “Dostoino Yest (It is Truly Fitting)” by Alexander Gretchaninov. This sparkling little jewel of a piece palpitates with radiant joy. The rhythmic vitality of the writing marks a noteworthy contrast to much of the music on this CD which is slower and otherworldly in character. Here, one gets the sense that the music is celebrating the humanity of the Virgin Mary—the unfettered joy one experiences in knowing that God chose a mortal—one of His own creation—to bear Him as a child.
Any CD dedicated to the Theotokos would be incomplete without a setting of “Archangel’sky Glas (With the Voice of the Archangel)” which is a favorite magnification hymn from the feast of Annunciation. The setting featured here is by the composer Nikolai Tolstiakov. It is an incredibly challenging piece for even the best of choirs, not because of any kind of rhythmic or melodic complexity but on account of the sheer amount energy it takes to sing the work from start to finish. The work is a near six-minute procession through multiple interlocking phrases that allow for few occasions of rest. This is one of just a few places on the CD where it seems that the choir loses its endurance. Like a long-distance runner, the ensemble sounds slightly fatigued toward the end of the track. These phrases are peppered with a large number of challenging choral unisons that cause the intonation to suffer ever so slightly. Yet, there remains an authentic beauty in the choral sound that no fatigue can erase, and this work is an example of such beauty, particularly in the opening measures where the upper voices sing with reverence and audible devotion.
The CD ends fittingly with Pavel Chesnokov’s “Vechnaya Pamyat’ (Memory Eternal)”, intoned on the C below the staff, by none other than Alexis Lukianov, the Chairman of PaTRAM and son of Protopresbyter Fr. Valery, to whom the CD was dedicated.
Unlike the first two CDs of PaTRAM, Blessed Art Thou among Women brings to the listener a striking contrast between the old and the new. This has consequences which cannot be coarsely categorized as either good or bad. Instead, it seems more appropriate to say that this CD requires more from the listener than the mere appreciation of beautiful choral sound. When hearing Titov, followed immediately by Sviridov, one feels the need to reconcile the stylistic differences or to accept them as a universal and timeless expression of devotion. Are there unchanging modes of expression in music in an unchanging faith, or does each Era have a unique way of adding its own voice to the angelic choir? This CD would seem to suggest the latter, although the answer is never unequivocally given.
While the CD as a whole is a feast for the ears, this particular point is one of the few areas where I believe the CD may leave the listener hungry. While the recording clearly offers a stunning example of a pan-generational veneration of the Theotokos, conspicuously absent are the creative voices of the present generation. Aside from the important introduction of the young composer Sergey Zheludkov, all of the composers featured on this CD lived in a century prior to the current one and are no longer with us. While no one questions the beauty or worth of such music, it may be time to look at how our current generation can add its voice to those of the past.
The work of the PaTRAM Institute™ has set out on a laudable mission to provide exquisite examples of choral singing drawn from the Russian Orthodox liturgical tradition. This CD unequivocally proves that they are succeeding in their mission. The choral singing is some of the best you will find in this genre, either inside or outside of Russia. It will set a standard of excellence by which future recordings will all be measured. If forthcoming releases continue to maintain the quality and artistic integrity of this album, we have much to look forward to in the years to come.
In the interest of full disclosure, it should be stated that this author had the distinct honor of participating in the first two recordings of PaTRAM, (Teach Me Thy Statutes, and The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom by Kurt Sander). I was not part of this CD recording.