Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Harmonia Sacra - Russian Orthodox choral works

Cherubim and Seraphim: Harmonia Sacra, Peter Leech: Nimbus Alliance NI 6187
Cherubim and Seraphim: Harmonia Sacra/Peter Leech: Nimbus Alliance
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 7 2014
Star rating: 3.0

Freshness and vitality in interesting repertoire

This disc from Peter Leech and his Bristol-based choir Harmonia Sacra looks at 150 years of music for the St Petersburg Chapel Choir, with music ranging from Bortnyansky to Rachmaninov. One of the interesting features of the disc is the inclusion of works by two of the Italian visitors, Giuseppe Sarti and Baldassare Galuppi.

Galuppi took his position as Director of the Russian court theatre and maestro di cappella of the Imerial Cappella in 1765. He wasn't the first Italian to take the position, but he is credited with founding a new Italian style in Russia though the groundwork had been laid by his predecessors Francesco Manfredini and Francesco Araja. The Russian court's preference for Italian music grew in the reign of Empresses Anna (1730) and Elizabeth (1741 - 62) and would reach its zenith under Catherine the Great (1762 - 1796).

Harmonia Sacra are a Bristol based choir formed by Peter Leech in 2009, though their core repertoire is late-Renaissance and early-Baroque they perform a repertoire which ranges up to contemporary music. The 30 strong choir is close in size and so eminently suitable for much of the music on this disc. Their chamber approach also brings an interesting clarity to the larger scale later pieces.


Members of the choir come from many parts of the UK for intensive weekends of music-making which culminate in concerts. Their sound is young and bright, with a nice forward, up-front quality. Occasionally the performance lacks that degree of sophistication which older performers might bring to it, but the young singers give us instead a lovely freshness and vitality.

Dmitry Bortnyansky (1751 - 1825) is one of the best known native composers of church music from the Italian period. He was sponsored by Catherine the Great to study in Italy.  Most of his choral works seem to date from the last quarter of the 18th century Bortnyansky's Priiditye vospoim is a bright up-tempo piece with varied tempos and textures. Whereas Da ispravitsya molitva is quieter and more homophonic.

Giuseppe Sarti travelled to St. Petersburg in 1784 as a result of Grand Duke Paul hearing one of his operas in 1782. Sarti, more than any of the other Italians, seems to have adapted his style to suit the Russian requirements, earning him great respect and admiration. His Raduitesya lyudie is rather homophonic in style. The choir sings with a vibrant up-front tone and some lovely quieter moments.

Bortnyansky's Kheruvimskaya pyessn, the first of a number of settings of the Cherubic Hymn, starts attractively prayerful with a lively second half. Again the writing reflects the Russian's preference for homophony. The Galuppi piece on the disc Plotiyu usnuv is an attractively lively piece, with the choir singing with a bright forward sound. It is significantly more polyphonic than the Russia pieces from the same period. Bortnyansky's Oslavi mi da pochiuy is lively enough, though it does have echoes of an academic exercise. Whilst his other Cherubic Hymn setting starts quiet and prayerful and develops in intensity in the second half. All the Cherubic hymn settings use a cantor, sung admirably by Peter Leech himself.

With Aleksandr Varlamov we move firmly into the 19th century; he was employed as singing teacher at the Imperial Choir School. His Cherubic Hymn has similar form to the previous ones but with some rather interesting harmonies. Mikhail Glinka is better known for his operas. His Kyrie is a simple but effective piece with hypnotic repetitions of the Lord have mercy text.

Aleksei Fyodorovich Lvov was the son of Bortnyansky's successor as Director of the Imperial Cappella. He composed the Russian national anthem, and his choral works were written when he succeeded his father in the post of Director. His Cherubic Hymn is interestingly more complex than the earlier pieces with a distinct Romantic influence. The low basses in the choir get to exercise some impressive low notes.

Grigory Lvovsky's Cherubic Hymn is quiet and intense, getting close to Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky in style. We reach Tchaikovsky with the next piece, his Dostomo yest from his Nine Liturgical Choruses commissioned by Tsar Alexander II after hearing the composer's Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. It is a relatively simple, homophonic piece which receives a lovely expressive performance by the choir. Tchaikovsky edited a ten-volume of Bortnyansky's choral works. The final Cherubic Hymn is a setting by Gavriil Yakimovich Lomakin, who taught at the Imperial Chapel. His style was much influenced by Bortnyansky.

We finish with Bororodistsye dyevo from Rachmaninov's All night vigil Dimitri Bortnyansky​​ (1751 - 1825)- Priiditye vospoim in a nicely flexible performance which brings great clarity to the piece.

The CD booklet comes with an interesting article which fills in the background to the works. There are texts and translations for all the pieces except the Cherubic Hymn.

This programme provides a fresh and interesting look at the Russian Orthodox tradition, giving us a selection of works which sheds light on the way music developed in the Imperial Chapel and provides valuable opportunity to hear music from the Italian period. The performances have a freshness and vitality which is appealing.

Dimitri Bortnyansky (1751- 1825)- Da ispravitsya molitva (Let My Prayer Be Set Forth) [5.24]
Giuseppe Sarti (1729 - 1802) - Raduitesya lyudie (Rejoice, O Ye People) [3.40]
Dimitri Bortnyansky (1751 - 1825) - Kheruvimskaya pyessn in D [2.40]
Baldassare Galuppi (1706 - 1785) - Plotiyu usnuv (In the Flesh Thou Didst Fall Asleep) [3.04]
Dimitri Bortnyansky (1751 - 1825) - Oslavi mi da pochiuy (Remove thy gaze from me) [3.48]
Dimitri Bortnyansky (1751 - 1825) - Kheruvimskaya pyessn in F (Cherubic Hymn) [3.23]
Aleksander Varlamov (1801 - 1848) - Kheruvimskaya pressn in G (Cherubic Hymn) [4.00]
Mikhail Glinka (1804 - 1857) - Ekteniya pervaya (Kyrie) [2.05]
Aleksei Fyodorovich Lvov (1798 - 1870) - Kheruvimskaya pyessn, No. 2 (Cherubic Hymn) [3.50]
Grigory Lvovsky (1830 - 1894) - Kheruvimskaya pyessn in G (Cherubic Hymn) [4.59]
Piotyr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 - 1893) - Dostoino yest (Blessing of the Virgin Mary) [2.31]
Gavriil Yakimovich Lomakin (1812 - 1885) - Kheruvimskaya pyessn, No. 9 (Cherubic Hymn) [4.10]
Sergey Rachmaninov (1873 - 1943) - Bogoroditsye dyevo (Ave Maria) [2.23]
Harmonia Sacra
Peter Leech (conductor)
Recorded at the Church of St Thomas the Martyr, Bristol, 2-3 July 2011
NIMBUS ALLIANCE NI6187  1CD [50.00]

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