HILARION ALFEYEV: Stabat Mater; Concerto grosso; Fugue on the B-A-C-H Motif; Canciones de la muerte; De profundis – Pentatone

HILARION ALFEYEV: Stabat Mater; Concerto grosso; Fugue on the B-A-C-H Motif; Canciones de la muerte; De profundis – Svetlana Kasyan, sop./ Artyom Dervoed, guitar/ Tatiana Porshneva, Maxim Khokholkov, violin/ Sergei Dobov, viola/ Alexander Gotgelf, cello/ Moscow Synodal Choir/ Russian National Orch./ Hilarion Alfeyev – Pentatone multichannel SACD PTC 5186 486, 74:05 [Distr. by Naxos] **1/2:

I am a huge fan of Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, religious polymath,  polyglot, author extraordinaire (hundreds of books and thousands of publications), chairman of the Department of External Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church, widely-revered lecturer, double-doctorate, ecumenical denizen, and accomplished beyond all normal means of human measurement for a man only 49 years old. His theological commentaries are a breath of fresh air, and I doubt there is a more religiously-connected man in the world.

But despite the fact that from 1972 to 1982 he studied violin, piano and composition at the Moscow Gnessins School and from 1983 to 1986 at the Moscow State Conservatoire, he is no composer.

That might seem an astounding statement considering his accolades and performances, but I get the feeling it’s the groupies perpetuating the myths. This disc, with the famous though quite homogenized-sounding Russian National Orchestra and superb Moscow Synodal Choir, proves the point, and I am willing to bet any serious classical music listener will come to similar conclusions. Take the Stabat Mater for starters—the opening movement, with its chaconne-like repeated bass line and very simple variations in the choir over the top, reminds me of a conservatory composition student’s imitation of Bach. The bass line is so thoroughly predictable in its sequences, the harmony elementary, and the part leading just out-of-kilter enough with the standard rules of the time to get several big red “X”s across the score. The third movement “Sancta Mater” features an almost blatant steal from Vivaldi’s “Winter” movement of the Four Seasons coupled with Philip Glass-like repetitions that flirt with minimalism almost as “see, I can do it too” than anything integral to the piece.

The Concerto Gross offers no respite. As in most of his music, the tempos are very much the same, plodding, unrelentingly stagnant straightforward meters where 7/8 would seem like the avant-garde. I will give him some slack in the middle movement—there is actually a very lovely melody that proves one of the highlights of the disc. But compared to any Baroque offering of the form, let alone a modern version by someone like Bloch, this piece simply doesn’t rate.

The Fugue displays some interest but still moves like a dinosaur in mud; Alfeyev finds his musically spiritual leanings in Bach and seeks to find that same inspiration in his compositions, but the technical facility—not to say genius—simply are not present. De profundis treads the same ground—I wish it were otherwise—but even though there are some excursions into harmonies a little more adventurous than the other works here, he fails to make a solid emotional connection among Psalms 130, to the bittersweet 137, and transitioned to the gloriously ecstatic 135.

Oddly, the one non-religious piece here (aside from the Concerto) is the most successful. Canciones de la muerte, on poems by, of all people, Federico Garcia Lorca, displays some creative energy absent from the religious works. Perhaps Alfeyev’s attempts at the sacred are too obviously forced, as if to live up to his own professional achievements where a degree of “spirituality” is almost expected; but when let loose on the dark and very human quasi-despondencies of Lorca, some real interest is born. Alfeyev achieves a Mahlerian Kindertotenlieder atmosphere with a studied familiarity of his own countryman Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death. It won’t win any composition prizes, but does show potential and provides genuine pleasure.

Fans of Alfeyev will ignore all of this and buy the disc anyway. But I can honestly say that if another name besides Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev was put on the cover, there would be a far different reaction to the music. The sound is stunning and a little close.

—Steven Ritter

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