STEINBERG Passion Week RIMSKY-KORSAKOV Chants
This important and exciting release from the Portland, Oregon-based 26-strong chamber choir is a notable successor to their ‘Good Friday in Jerusalem’ disc (5/15). Under their inspiring director Alexander Lingas they turn their attention to a recently rediscovered choral gem, the 47-minute long Passion Week by the Lithuanian-born composer Maximilian Steinberg (1883-1946). This recording closely followed what is believed to have been the premiere complete performance by these forces.
Having chosen to stay in Russia after the 1917 Revolution, Steinberg completed this piece in 1923, just one month before the ban on all sacred music and the stepping-up of persecution of the Orthodox Church. This was, effectively, the last major sacred work to be composed in Soviet Russia.
Steinberg took Grechaninov’s Op 58 Passion Week of 1912 as his model, and 11 of his work’s dozen movements are based on early Znamenny, Kievan and Bulgarian chants. The one original composition, ‘The Wise Thief’, is almost a pastiche, its idiom taking us a little further on from Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil.
The a cappella textures spread variously and luxuriantly into 12 parts, requiring, as might be expected, the sopranos to soar with jewel-like brilliance and the basses to delve to their reedy subterranean depths. Cappella Romana cope with all of this with an eloquent brilliance, singing with tremendous relish, as though this obscure masterpiece had been in their repertory for years. Their unanimity of attack and fastidious approach to dynamic contrasts are just two hallmarks of an outstanding achievement. Hats off, too, to Preston Smith and Steve Barnett for their superb engineering and production.
It is entirely fitting that the rest of the disc consists of five Chant Arrangements for Holy Week by Steinberg’s father-in-law Rimsky-Korsakov. They are taken from two anthologies (published in 1884-86 and posthumously in 1910) which achieved a modest success with Russian choirs. The most substantial arrangement is the concluding track on the disc, the magnificent ‘Let all mortal flesh keep silence’. Although it doesn’t quite reach the ecstatic mysticism of Bairstow’s masterly setting, it does receive the finest advocacy from these fine musicians. This is definitely a disc to savour.