“Good Friday in Jerusalem: Medieval Byzantine Chant from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre” – Cappella Romana/ Alexander Lingas – Cappella Romana

“Good Friday in Jerusalem: Medieval Byzantine Chant from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre” – Cappella Romana/ Alexander Lingas – Cappella Romana CR413, 74:38 [Distr. by Allegro] (2/10/15) *****:

In recent years it has become more and more popular to present ancient chants in the context of historical “recreations”; in other words, instead of just a program of music from a certain era, it is assumed that giving the music in a setting as it either “was” or “might have been” done in its own time period livens up the experience and makes it more meaningful for the listener. Of course for those who love ancient music for itself it probably doesn’t affect them that much except in terms of added curiosity. But for many, perhaps even most, listeners, it opens a window into eras that are often obscure and esoteric, qualities which far too often completely obfuscate the importance and even beauty of the art. So the trend is a welcome one indeed.

We haven’t had a lot of these in the realm of Byzantine music; though Lingas and the ever intrepid artistry of Jordi Savall have indeed provided period conceptuality in any number of releases, “you are there” programs are less common. One of the problems in the Byzantine world is the sheer number of sources one has to deal with, and the fact that far less uniformity existed in the Byzantine world than in the Latin during the same time period. And the Byzantines seemed then—as today—less concerned over exactitude in liturgical practices even among the same national or local church.

Jerusalem presents a specific and very important example of universal leadership in the Eastern Church. For though not everything done there seeped into all the local churches, their typicon or order of services was and has been highly influential. The subject of the typicon alone easily would take several good size books to explore thoroughly, but suffice it to say that the cross-pollination of monastic practice in and around Jerusalem with the so-called “Cathedral” rite that was practiced in the capital city of Constantinople produced variants and formulations still in existence today, and which provide the backbone of Byzantine liturgical practice.

This program is essentially devoted to the Good Friday (or “Great and Holy Friday”) services as they were most likely practiced in Jerusalem in its transitional period into full Byzantine usage. Much of the music comes from the flowering of Byzantine hymnody from the likes of Kosmas the Melodist, John of Damascus, and Andrew of Crete in the eighth century, but it also spans a greater time than this. Anyone familiar with the current Holy Thursday evening service of the Passion Gospels (Matins) in the Orthodox Church will understand the concept easily, and will be fascinated to obtain greater understanding of the origin of its many components. Though that service is completely stationary (meaning it all takes place inside the church, even though there is a procession within at one point), in Jerusalem in ancient days it was “stational”, meaning that it moved quite literally from church to church and shrine to shrine within the Holy City itself, with eleven gospel readings of the Passion forming the scaffolding on which everything revolves. Cappella Romana has taken as its source guide the typicon of the Anastasis (Resurrection, as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was known) which begins in the middle of the night on the Mount of Olives, and ends at Golgotha.

This is the all-male version of Cappella Romana, and Alexander Lingas has his Portland-based ensemble going from strength to strength, perfectly judged balances among the melodists and those singing the ison, or lower drone notes, and executing these sometimes hugely challenging chants with razor-sharp precision and flawless unanimity. But what strikes me the most is the superb tonal quality of the group, rich, full, and velvety smooth in a genre that too often gives way to acerbic sonic ineptitude and soloistic grandstanding which gives chant a bad name. The resonance of the Stanford Memorial Church in California is expertly caught, though you might want to boost the volume a little. This disc is, simply, irresistible.

—Steven Ritter

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