By Jacob Stockinger
Here is a special posting, a record 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 hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.
By John W. Barker
For reasons, astronomical and cultural, the Western and Eastern Orthodox celebrations of Easter are frequently held at separate dates. But this year they coincide (on this coming Sunday, April 16). That gives good reason to direct attention beyond familiar Western Easter music and instead to that of Eastern Orthodoxy.
A new recording of one of the landmarks of Russian Orthodox music provides further stimulus to this.
Russian Orthodox practice did not encourage extensive new compositions, but stressed elaborate liturgical rituals built around the heritage of medieval monophonic chant, while benefiting from the fabulous style of Russian choral singing—those low basses (“octavists”) in particular.
Most composers who worked to enrich the liturgical literature were professional church musicians, but a number of “secular” Russian composers also made contributions. Notable among them were Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Peter Tchaikovsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff (below).
It is the last of those three who has given us the music at hand, a truly memorable sacred creation. The work is his Op. 37, entitled “The Most Important Hymns of the ‘All-Night Vigil,” and commonly called “The All-Night Vigil” (Vsenoshchnogo Bdeniya) or else, more simplistically the “Vespers.”
It was composed during the early years of World War I, which was to bring about the collapse of the Russia that Rachmaninoff knew. It was performed in 1915, and two years later, amid the upheavals of the two Revolutions, the composer left his native land for good.
Rachmaninoff prized his Op. 37 above his other works; it was his proclamation of Russian identity, and after it he wrote no more sacred music. He even hoped that one section of it could be sung at his funeral. (A moving sample can be heard in the YouTube video at the bottom.)
The Orthodox Christian celebration of the Resurrection places emphasis on the Saturday night offices of Vespers and Matins, in a prolonged and elaborate ritual. (This Vigil array can also be used for other significant feasts beyond Easter.)
Given the lengths, Rachmaninoff chose to set his selection of “the most important hymns” for his Op. 37, for a total of 15 sections. He did follow working practice by building his settings on or around traditional chant melodies. He expected that individual sections might have liturgical usage; but he understood that the totality was a grand concert work.
The Rachmaninoff All-Night Vigil, or “Vespers,” has been recorded many times, often by Russian choirs, which have the musical and liturgical style in their blood. But non-Russian groups and directors have also come to recognize the transcendent beauty of this masterwork.
Noteworthy among those was Robert Shaw, the great American choral master whose recording (on the Telarc label) has been acclaimed by his admirers for its predictably superb choral sound. But Shaw and his singers lack Russian sound or spiritual sensitivity.
Other American performers have joined in: the broadly paced recording with Charles Bruffy and his Phoenix and Kansas City choirs (for Chandos) is notable. Paul Hillier’s recording (for Harmonia Mundi) with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir has earned great respect.
I have just been taken by the brand new release (below) from Paraclete Recordings of Massachusetts, with the Gloria Dei Cantores and members of three other choirs under the direction of Peter Jermihov.
They number 77 singers in all and, as recorded in a church setting, they make a sumptuous sound. Their emphasis is less on clarifying individual voice parts and more on relishing the rich blends that make up the total texture.
While treating the work as a grand concert piece, this performance goes beyond most others by including intonations by clerical celebrants, recalling the liturgical context that was always in the composer’s mind.
One of the striking features of this release is its thick album booklet. This is not only richly illustrated but contains an unusually penetrating background essay. Further, in presenting the Russian texts (in Cyrillic and transliteration) with English translations, it also gives useful comments section by section, for the fullest understanding of the liturgical contexts.
This is a noteworthy addition to the crowded recording picture for this sumptuous and deeply moving sacred music.
By Jacob Stockinger
Is there a better way to greet the New Year than to take a look back at the past year?
2016 was a year of big losses: composer and conductor Pierre Boulez (below top), conductor Sir Neville Marriner (below middle) and early music pioneer and conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt (below bottom) among the many whose names you might recognize.
What better way to start 2017 than to recall the figures we lost and hope that the coming year is kinder.
And here is an entry from, of all places, Wikipedia that includes an exhaustive and detailed list of important events, performances and compositions as well as of classical musicians who died.
It seems as good a summing up as any that The Ear has seen, and demonstrates just how prolific the composers of new classical music are:
We remember and we revere.
Which is why The Ear has included the Funeral March movement from the Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” by Ludwig van Beethoven on a YouTube video below that features an intriguing graphic arts representation of the music.
We are lucky: We have the music even when we no longer have the musicians.
ALERT: This afternoon at 2:30 p.m in Overture Hall of the Overture Center is your last chance to hear the acclaimed all-French program by the Madison Symphony Orchestra with guest cellist Sara Sant’Ambrogio. Here are links to two very positive reviews.
Here is the review written by critic John W. Barker for Isthmus:
And here is a link to an interview with more about the concert, the program and the soloist:
By Jacob Stockinger
This news is old and dated, and it comes late, too late for you to attend the memorial service. The Ear apologizes for his tardiness.
But the past several weeks have been very busy with concerts, and therefore with previews and reviews. Plus, he didn’t hear about the news until later.
Putting excuses aside, The Ear wants to take a moment to recognize the passing of an extraordinary talent many of us heard in performance and deeply appreciated.
Flutist Robin Fellows (below) has died of cancer at 66. For many years, he was principal flute with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. He was also a longtime music professor at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
And he performed his share of other dates, such as playing with the Ancora String Quartet (below, in a photo by John W. Barker)
Here is a link to his obituary:
In his memory, here — in a YouTube video at the bottom featuring flutist Emmanuel Pahud and Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic — is a favorite work of The Ear with a major flute part: the Sarabande by French composer Gabriel Faure.
Please feel free to leave your personal memories and recollections in the COMMENT section for others and the family to see.