Thursday 14 March 2013

CD review - Alexander Levine - Divine Liturgy

Alexander Levine's Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom SIGCD316
Alexander Levine's Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom was written in 2006, in memory of his friend Father Alexander Men, the Russian Orthodox priest who became an influential spiritual leader and architect of religious renewal in Russia at the end of the Soviet period. The work was premiered in Russia in 2008 ,but the Mariinsky Opera Choir at the Easter Festival in Moscow. The work received its UK premiere earlier this month at the launch of this CD, with Tenebrae directed by Nigel Short (see our review of the concert on this blog).

Alexander Levine (born 1955) studied at the Gnessin Music Academy in Russia, then moved to the UK in 1992 where he studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama with Gary Carpenter and Simon Bainbridge. The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom sets the Russian Orthodox liturgy familiar from the settings by Tchakovsky and Rachmaninov. Like them, Levine uses just an unaccompanied choir (instruments are forbidden in liturgical music in the Russian Orthodox Church), but he has given some of the deacons and the priests part to the choir itself.

The CD booklet described how Levine's approach to the writing of the work was extremely spiritual. But as with any music, the success of the piece is in how the listener perceives it: good intentions are not enough.

The work clearly lives in the same musical world as Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov's settings of the liturgy, in a the way that settings of the Roman Catholic Mass do not necessarily share the same musical ethos (just consider say RVW and James MacMillan's settings). 

Levine uses a similar mixture of chant, homophony and lively canonic passages with a strong emphasis on drones. But mixed in with this is a harmonic language which incorporates the sort of close harmony chords beloved of Eric Whitacre and Morten Lauridsen. Levine uses these to create a radiance which is entirely apposite to the work.

There is another interesting influence that is sometimes hinted at, that of Alfred Schnittke. Not that Levine's writing attempts to approach the complexity of Schnittke's, but Schnittke's handling of chant in works like the Choral Concerto is echoed distantly in Levine's setting.

For those not completely familiar with the Russian Orthodox Liturgy, Levine sets the different movements in an admirably varied and highly evocative manner. This is a work which draws us in, whatever your religious persuasion.

The performance by Tenebrae under conductor Nigel Short is extremely fine indeed. The choir numbers just 20 singers, but makes a rich firm sound. Their tuning and placement of the notes in Levine's closely harmonised writing is nothing short of superb. This is singing of a very high order. They bring a quiet beauty of tone to the more reflective moments, which carries over into other parts of the work and their contribution to the sheer radiance of the performance is significant.

The sound quality of the choir is still decidedly English, though they bring a nice intensity to the piece. I have to confess that I am highly curious as to what a performance by a Russian choir would be like?

Ultimately the work does succeed, Levine manages to sustain an intensity of feeling and radiance which comes over superbly in this performance.

Alexander Levine (born 1955) - The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (2006) [77.05]
Nigel Short (director)
Recorded at St. Augustine's Church, Highbury, London, 13-15 February 2013

SIGNUM SIGCD316 1CD [77.05]
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