The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Festival Choir of Madison gives a lovely and lovingly committed exploration of the rarely heard setting of the Russian Orthodox All-Night Vigil by Tchaikovsky. | November 5, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who for 20 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The Festival Choir of Madison (below top, in a photo by Stephanie Williams) undertook a brave venture into difficult novelty last Saturday night in the Atrium Auditorium (below bottom in a photo by Zane Williams) at the First Unitarian Society of Madison.

Festival Choir of Madison Tchaikovsky Fall 2014 CR Stephanie Wiliams

FUS Atrium, Auditorium Zane Williams

The venture involved the setting of the All-Night Vigil ritual for a cappella choir by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky .

One does not instantly think of Tchaikovsky as a choral composer, or in particular as a composer of sacred music. But he greatly admired the traditions of Russian Orthodox liturgical music, as it had been redefined in the 18th and 19th centuries, as bound up in the very special Russian propensity for powerful choral singing.

In 1879 he made a setting the text of the basic Orthodox Eucharistic service, the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, published as his Op. 41. It was not well received, but Tchaikovsky (below) went on in 1882 to set the cycle of Vespers and Vigil texts, his Op. 52. Indeed, during the 1880s, he composed a dozen other settings of Orthodox liturgical texts.

young tchaikovsky

By his time, the functioning choral music of the Russian Orthodox Church, used amid traditional chants, was generally written by composers who specialized in the genre, quite separate from the growing school of Russian secular composers.

There were some jealousy and resentment expressed by the former against the latter. Few Russian musicians managed personally to bridge the gap between the sacred and the secular. Alexander Gretchaninoff (below) was one of the few who were successful in both.

Alexander Grechaninov in 1912

Tchaikovsky was not given much credit for his religious writing, and his liturgical works are generally ignored. It was his successor, as it were, Sergei Rachmaninoff (below), who achieved true musical greatness in leaping from secular composition into sacred, with his own settings of the Chrysostom Liturgy and the All-Night Vigil. Indeed, the latter has come by now to be recognized as a masterpiece and is ever more frequently performed internationally. (You can hear a section in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

rachmaninoffyoung

The Festival Choir’s conductor, Bryson Mortensen (below, with singer Nancy Vedder-Shults in a photo by Jon Lanctot) chose to preface the performance of the Tchaikovsky score with one movement from the Rachmaninoff counterpart. It was a good idea, though the brief section chosen, gorgeous in itself, was not enough to point up the contrasts in the two composers’ approaches.

Festival Choir of Madison Tchakovsky Fall 2014 CR Jon Lactot  Bryson Mortensen and Nancy Vedder-Shults

Rachmaninoff’s setting is charged with imagination and rich elaboration of the traditional; chants that are the music’s foundations. He even included parts for solo voices, which Tchaikovsky did not.

On the contrary, Tchaikovsky’s approach is really quite conservative and even simplistic. He chose to devise harmonizations of the chants and their liturgical formulas, in accomplished but texturally unadventurous realizations, relying upon the sonorous Russian choral sound to carry the effects. The results are quite lovely, if a bit repetitive as a cycle.

Mortensen made one interesting attempt to bring some variety into the proceedings by having three spiritual poems by Russian writers interspersed with the music at three points. An interesting idea, but the poems chosen were rather bland, and were not well delivered.

It is more a question is the musical performance. Setting Western choirs to singing Church Slavonic texts not part of their culture is not always easy. The singers clearly were working earnestly at it.

But Church Slavonic (like modern Russian) is rich in consonants, and these were just not spat out with the spirit they required. In addition, it seems that only Russian choirs have the gutsy basses that can provide the rock-solid foundation needed for the overall texture. The Festival Singers just could not muster up such power.

Or perhaps, as I suspect, maestro Mortensen (below) chose to restrain them in the interests of a beautifully balanced and blended choral sound — which he certainly achieved — rather than to risk having a section run away with the show. On the other hand, it seemed to me that by the final sections of the score he was infusing a really exciting range of dynamic inflection into the performance.

Bryson Mortensen BW

All in all, one had to admire what this conductor and choir achieved. How often, anywhere, is one likely to encounter this music in live performance? In this concert we were given a chance, and one in which the challenges were met with devotion and lovely music-making. Slava!

 

 

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1 Comment »

  1. Thank you John–this is so interesting! I was very curious about the background of this piece and the relationship to the Rachmaninoff, and how the secular Russian composers dealt with church music–great explanation

    Comment by Mary Gordon — November 6, 2014 @ 11:29 am


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