LEVINE The Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom
Tenebrae have already recorded an earlier work by the Moscow-born composer Alexander Levine, Prayers for Mankind (1/11), on texts by the martyr priest Alexander Men. This setting of the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom – the standard form of the Eucharistic service in the Byzantine rite – was inspired by a visit to Men’s grave. It is shot through by the same passionate urgency and by the same fluency in writing for choral ensemble, at once contemporary and connected with the great Russian choral tradition of the past. Levine himself invokes both Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov in his booklet-notes, and not without reason. The fact that the work’s text is in Slavonic, rather than the English of Prayers, is indicative of the way language shapes music; Levine’s ringing chordal writing and the subtle weighting towards the lower voices (including the subterranean bass) is a very direct response to the words of the Liturgy.
But is it a genuinely liturgical work? That is a difficult question to answer. In principle, there is no reason why it could not be used in a liturgical celebration (the priest’s petitions are not sung here except for the opening blessing), but it is very definitely an elaborate kind of music and requires a very high standard of performance. Tenebrae are the choir for the job: the sound, while perfectly blended, is also, paradoxically, clearly built from individual timbres, like a richly veined marble. It is surely just what the composer desired for this luminous music.