Thursday 18 June 2015

Maximilian Steinberg - Passion Week

Cappella Romana - Maximilian Steinberg - Passion Week
Maximilian Steinberg Passion Week; Cappella Romana, Alexander Lingas
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 13 2015
Star rating: 4.0

The last major work of Russian sacred music written in Soviet Russia

The booklet to this CD of Maximilian Steinberg's Passion Week, includes a photograph taken in 1908, of the composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov at home with his daughter Nadezhda and two of his closest pupils, Igor Stravinsky (and his wife Ekaterina) and Maximilian Steinberg, who was soon to marry Nadezhda Rimsky-Korsakova. Igor Stravinsky and Maximilian Steinberg were classmates, pupils of Rimsky-Korsakov. But at the revolution, Stravinsky left Russia whilst Steinberg stayed. Thereby their paths diverged.

 Igor Stravinsky, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, Nadyezhda Rimsky-Korsakov Steinberg, Maximilian Steinberg, Yekaterina Stravinsky, 1908.
Igor Stravinsky, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov,
Nadyezhda Rimsky-Korsakov, Maximilian Steinberg,
Ekaterina Stravinsky, 1908.
Maximilian Steinberg wrote his Passion Week, Op.13, in 1923. It was one of the last major Russian sacred choral works to be written in Soviet Russia. Not fully performed in his lifetime it seems to have been almost lost to sight. This world premiere recording from Capella Romana, on the choir's own label, is conducted by their founder Alexander Lingas. They pair the Steinberg with a selection of Rimsky-Korsakov's chants for Holy Week.

Maximilian Steinberg was born in 1883 in Vilnius (then in the Russian Empire). He came from a cultured Jewish family, and moved to St Petersburg to study. Study with Rimsky-Korsakov led to closer contact, he became the composer's assistant and his son-in-law. This latter by marrying Nadezhda in a Russian Orthodox Service, so presumably he converted to Christianity.

His interest in Russian sacred music seems to have come rather late, well after the glory days. It was only in 192 that he started work on Passion Week. At this time Mikhail Klimov and the Imperial Court Capella (renamed Petrograd People's Choral Academy) were still active performing Slavonic chant and Russian sacred music. Ironically a near total ban came only after Steinberg finished the work. (The history of Russian sacred music in Russia after the Revolution is complex and beautifully elucidated by Alexander Lingas in his article in the CD booklet). Passion Week was published in Paris, and seemed to have had some partial performances in France.

The present recording came about because the Russian American conductor Igor Buketoff (1915-2001) owned a copy of the (now rare) French edition of Passion Week, but failed to find an American choir willing (or able) to perform it. He enlisted the help of his niece and her husband, Tamara and Daniel Skir and it was they who passed a copy of the work to Alexander Lingas.

Maximilian Steinberg
Maximilian Steinberg
The work in in 12 movements lasting 47 minutes and traces the events of the Passion via texts and chants from the Russian Orthodox services of Holy Week. In structure it is similar to Gretchaninov's Passion Week Op. 58 (of 1912) though not all Gretchaninov's texts are directly related to Holy Week.

Musically it is very much in the same genre as Rachmaninov's All Night Vigil (Vespers), the chant in Steinberg's work has similar recognisable outlines. Steinberg's harmony is more classical, less rich than that of Rachmaninov and the chants stand out more in Steinberg. There is a fine clarity of texture but a certain stylistic short-breathed-ness about the way the chants are presented. Quite romantic in texture, it is approached in a similar vein by the choir which gives a beautiful shapeliness to phrases, and a nice clarity. This is very much a light, bright Western choir, with finely focussed singer and bright sopranos. The low second basses are present, but quite discreet.

The performance perhaps lacks the vividness (and also the vibrato!) of more recent Russian recordings of this repertoire, but the singers more than make up with their finesse, and some ravishing moments such as the trio No. 8 Exaposteilarion: The Wise Thief and the fine tenor solo in No.9 Canon, Ode 9, Heirmos: Do not week for me mother. I was struck by Alexander Lingas' very steady tempos and was intrigued by what effect if would make if conducted with less concern for the liturgical integrity of the chant.

The pairing with the Rimsky-Korsakov provides some very beautiful singing and a further illuminating glimpse into the history of Russian sacred music.

Capella Romana is based in the Pacific Northwest of the United States and presents and annual concert series in Portland, Oregon, and in Seattle. Alexander Lingas, who is now Reader in Music at City University, London, is the group's founding artistic director. The group specialises in combining scholarship and exploration in the music of the Christian East and West. Their recent discs have included Good Friday in Jerusalem. They are clearly a very capable and flexible choir and anyone interested in Orthodox and Byzantine chant should keep an eye open for them.

Maximilian Steinberg's Passion Week is a major work which deserves to be better known. Perhaps not on a level with Rachmaninov's essays in the genre, it nonetheless deserves a hearing. Alexander Lingas and Capella Romana are to be congratulated on their scholarship in recovering the work, and their fine recording.

Maximilian Steinberg (1883-1946) - Passion Week, Opus 13 [47.04]
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) - Alleluia [2.11]
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) - Troparion: Behold the Bridegroom [3.06]
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) - Exaposteilarion: Your bridal chamber [2.03]
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) - Canon, Ode 9, Heirmos: Do not weep for Me, Mother [1.58]
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) - Great Entrance Chant: Let all mortal flesh keep silence [5.13]
Capella Romana
Alexander Lingas (conductor)
Recorded St Stephen's Roman Catholic Church, Portland, Oregon, 12-19 July 2014

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