Sunday, 10 March 2013

Alexander Levine – The Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom CD Launch

Alexander Levine
Alexander Levine
Tonight’s performance (7 March 2013) of Alexander Levine’s (born 1955) The Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom by Tenebrae, directed by Nigel Short, celebrated the CD launch and publication of the vocal score (Edition Peters). The Liturgy was first performed in 2009 at the International Choral Festival in St. Petersburg by the Mariinsky Opera Choir, conducted by Andrei Petrenko, and the CD was recorded by Tenebrae last year (2012) on the Signum Classics label, SIGCD316. CD previewed by Robert Hugill here.


This liturgy is the most commonly observed of the Byzantium rite. The anaphora (Eucharistic prayer) is attributed to Saint John Chrysostom, who was the Archbishop of Constantinople in the 5th century. This work is Levin’s tribute to his friend Alexander Vladimirovich Men (1935 – 1990) a Russian orthodox priest who was murdered on his way to church. Men’s controversial ideas about ecumenicalism were honoured in tonight’s choice of venue - the 12th century priory church of St Bartholomew the Great in the City of London. St Bartholomew was also killed for his beliefs.

Nigel Short
Nigel Short
Levine is an award winning composer having studied both in Russia, at the Gnessin Academy of Music, and the UK, at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, a short distance from St Barts. The Liturgy was composed over a three month period of ‘spiritual immersion, research and contemplation’ and although described as being in the tradition of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov is a modern exploration of Byzantium chant, medieval polyphony, Renaissance counterpoint, folk song and choral tradition, all within a Russian sentimentality. The Russian folk song At the Father’s gate from the Creed was previously identified as symbol of resistance to the Neapolitan army by Leo Tolstoy. 

In all, 22 movements encompass the prayers, antiphons, hymns and responses of the Litany as well as core segments including Hymn to the Lord, Creed, Hymn to the Virgin, and Lord ’s Prayer. As a whole the work felt very familiar whilst being entirely new.

Several refrains held everything together. Sustained notes, sometimes beginning a new thought, sometimes linking or ending ideas, brought a meditative quality, while (to a non-Russian speaker) the Amin and Alliluyas provided a reference point. Cleverly Levine set this up from the very start where the chant-like bass solo is answered by a choral Amin. This in turn expanded, ever louder under ethereal held notes, until the word ‘grace’ when the sound returned to a whisper.

The Second Antiphon was underscored by a delightfully intertwining duet, first sung by the men and then appearing in various guises, twisting under the rest of the chorus. Here deep notes in both male and female voices suggested Russian folk or hymn tradition.  

Waves of sound crashed in the Entrance Hymn, returning several times, including in the ‘Fervent Supplication’ which ended triumphantly, and Anaphora. Contrastingly in Cherybic Hymn the held notes were refined to such a point that they reminded me of a finger on a wet glass. But this was balanced against the more earthly King of All which was dancelike although it ended sadly. Similarly the Communion was poised against the folk dance and dark moments in the Hymn of praise.

Running about 10 minutes longer than the suggested 70 minutes the short interval was welcome – after all this was a concert performance and not a service. Tenebrae made the Liturgy sound effortless, bringing a clarity and depth of sound, which belied the technical difficulties of such close singing. However this piece deserves to become a much performed edition to the choral repertoire.

There is a video about the launch with an interview with the composer on YoutTube.

review by Hilary Glover

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