Shchedrin (The) Sealed Angel
In the interview that serves as the booklet-note, Rodion Shchedrin explains, albeit obliquely, the origins of his near-hour-long choral suite The Sealed Angel (1988). Even in Gorbachev’s Russia, writing a direct setting of the Orthodox (or any other) liturgy was a dangerous activity for a composer, especially as in this case it was written without commission. For this reason, Shchedrin turned to Leskov (author of The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk) and his tale The Sealed Angel, in which a rural community protects a religious icon.
The allegorical resonances of the tale seem obvious and the text is purely religious, the equivalent of a cinematic treatment featuring the icon alone. The nine movements play continuously, the first three a flowing evocation of angels before the atmosphere changes in the freely dissonant fourth, depicting Judas’s betrayal. After the great choral screech at its climax, the music calms down with the choir tacet in the fifth; the halting, static sixth is a chordal prayer of repentance and salvation. The vertical and horizontal elements then fuse in a powerful setting of the Lord’s Prayer (section eight) before the quiet reprise of the opening.
Shchedrin provides a detached counterpoint to the voices with a series of oboe solos, free variations not so much on a theme as a way of writing. These top and tail the main choral blocks, punctuating rather than accompanying, nicely played by Clare Wills. The choirs sing splendidly, without producing a Russian sound, yet the composer is aware of the English choral tradition so his music’s translation here is fascinating. So is his avoidance of the holy minimalism of many of his compatriots or the consonance of Rautavaara’s larger choral works. Caught here in fine sound, this is a splendid disc of a multifaceted, many-layered modern masterpiece.