Hidden Music of the Russian Church
This is an astounding recording, on account of both the repertoire selected and the quality of the singing. The choir (‘patriarshiy’ should be translated ‘patriarchal’ rather than ‘patriarch’) is that of the vast Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, rebuilt in 1998, where the recording was made, and not only do they know exactly how to make the best of the enormous acoustical space, but engineer Alexander Kalashnikov’s recording is outstandingly good.
The title is perhaps somewhat misleading: to read the detailed booklet-notes by Ivan Vishnevskiy, one would receive the impression that Kastalsky is unknown and Alexandrov exceedingly famous, but exactly the opposite situation obtains in general outside Russia. Alexandrov is easily the least-known composer of the five recorded here, and it is fortunate that the disc includes seven of his works, all of the highest quality. They recall Chesnokov in some ways, but that resemblance is technical – there is a similar mastery of the intricacies of choral writing and of counterpoint – but the musical gestures, and most especially his melodic gifts, are entirely different, and beautifully demonstrated in the three of the works that make use of a soloist – In thy kingdom (that is, the Beatitudes), We hymn thee (‘Tebe’ poem) and a setting of the Lord’s Prayer.
Alexandrov was a pupil of Medtner, and though his name is little-known outside Russia, anyone who has heard the national anthem of the former Soviet Union (now, with new words, that of Russia) will have heard his music. As Vishnevskiy notes, ‘Alexandrov saw no general ideological or musical obstacles standing in the way of his transformation from choirmaster of Christ the Saviour Cathedral (1918 22) to “official” musician of the Soviet Union’, a statement that certainly requires deeper explication than it subsequently receives. Nevertheless, the music recorded here leaves the listener in no doubt as to his gifts, however they were used.
Nikolai Golovanov’s work has begun to appear in concerts and recordings but he is a composer whose time is still to come. The richly textured He who closed the abyss is particularly remarkable. Nikolsky, Chesnokov and Kastalsky are represented by two works each. The Nikolsky pieces, expertly scored, are still relative rarities but these days Chesnokov and Kastalsky can hardly be considered ‘hidden’. Nevertheless, the pieces are well chosen indeed; Kastalsky’s Let God arise provides a superb conclusion to an anthology that is both unusual and arresting. Performances throughout are of the highest standard and my only reservation would be a slight excess of vibrato in the upper voices from time to time. This is a revelatory disc, by any standards.