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TIKEY ZES: The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom – Cappella Romana/ Alexander Lingas – Cappella Romana

TIKEY ZES: The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom – Cappella Romana/ Alexander Lingas – Cappella Romana CR410, 77:58 [Distr. by Allegro] ****:

Cappella Romana is the foremost ensemble in the United States promoting the heritage of Byzantine chant, and one of the finest in the world as well. Their first concerts were given in 1991 at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation in San Francisco, and they have been going strong ever since, founding their own well-stocked label. It’s not Super Audio format but it is “super” audio, each of their recordings showing the highest level of technical achievement and always finding the perfect acoustic for the presentation of their programs.

Dr. Tikey Zes (b. 1927) is generally considered the most prolific of all Orthodox Church music conductors in America, and his music resounds in many churches across the country, Orthodox, and non-Orthodox. This liturgy, composed in 1991 and revised and dedicated to the Capella in 1996, displays many of the characteristics of the affected harmonization of Byzantine chant, a process that developed much later in the east than in the west, and one that continues to generate (sometimes) heated discussions and quite partisan diatribes from those in the modern and purist camps. It’s not hard to see why; though the pieces of this composition, some based on real chants while other parts almost through-composed and wholly original, though intended to be in the “spirit” of the original, can be assessed on two levels. If one takes it at face value, and makes judgments solely on the way it sounds and its effectiveness as church music, one comes away fairly impressed with the piety of the work and its ability to support the Byzantine liturgy. But if one compares it to genuine Byzantine chant, with its own peculiar ethos and long-standing traditions, the contrast can be quite startling. For one, from this viewpoint, the music often seems to lose its Byzantine characteristics completely, sometimes sounding not unlike much western music from the Renaissance, and the organ accompaniment, which was never integral to Byzantine music but a very late addition, sounds anachronistic, especially considering the fact that its use has been declining the last 30 years in Byzantine churches in the Unites States, and even those that promote the use of harmonized chant are rejecting the organ. Secondly, the emotionality of the music is quite different from the more somber and historically “passionless” music of the Eastern Church, and the use of dynamics, while never absent from Byzantine chant, gets a boost here with the large harmonized choral forces.

This debate will go on, but there is no doubt that Zes’s music is significant, historical, and important in the larger scheme of things, and represents a segment of the contemporary Byzantine music scene that is large enough and supported enough such that it cannot be ignored. Performances are superb, and this is a first class production.

—Steven Ritter

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