“Lost Voices of Hagia Sophia: Medieval Byzantine Chant Sung in the Virtual Acoustic of Hagia Sophia” = Selections from the Offices of Vespers, Matins, Elevation of the Cross, and Divine Liturgy for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in Constantinople – Cappella Romana/ Alexander Lingas – Cappella Romana CD + Blu-ray Pure Audio CR420-CDBR, 76:50, 80:00 *****:
Westerners often have issues with Byzantine chant; the long, melismatic lines, dissonances that cross the melodic line in a manner that rarely resolves the way we are used to, acerbic sounding leaps that emphasize the tritone, and drone notes that go on for ages, all make for an understanding leaving those preferring Gregorian tonalities lost in space. Of course, to many Eastern Orthodox and middle eastern types, this is nothing but mother’s milk. Yet the philosophy behind both chants is similar in nature—to provide a calming and spiritually uplifting experience that enhances the worship of God. Today’s nominal Christian experience in most churches is rarely that, imports from the pop music and rock worlds making sacred and secular practically indistinguishable—and yes, that is a criticism.
This is the Byzantine chant album that aficionados have been waiting for and will be of interest far beyond the true believers. For this is not only a chant album, but an attempted recreation of what it would have sounded like in the “Great Church”, the cathedral of Hagia Sophia, or Holy Wisdom, that enormous wonder of the world that was at one time the single largest structure in the world, and amazingly enough, its architectural magnificence has survived since Emperor St. Justinian built it from 532-537 AD, an astounding feat in and of itself. The height, at nearly 185 feet, easily tops the most exalted medieval cathedrals of western Europe. The interior is huge, making for an immense aural reverberation time of up to twelve seconds, and holding up to 16,000 people. There is no place quite like it. The chants created for the church are also quite melismatic, for any sort of note-to-syllable chanting would completely blur the text and make it impossible to understand.
The feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, introduced to the cathedral in 628, produced music that creates what some call a “waterfall of sound”, a sonic icon of Christ. The feast features a special section where the Patriarch comes out of the altar and raises the cross to the east, north, west, and south, the “four corners of the universe” in imitation of the Patriarch Macarius who lifted the cross in similar manner after it was discovered by St. Helena, the mother of St. Constantine the Great. One of the highlights of the eastern liturgical year would presuppose equally spectacular music.
But the most exciting thing about this album is the reconstruction of the acoustical setting of Hagia Sophia, which has not heard this music since the fall of Constantinople in 1453, and no music at all since the 1935 secularization of Turkey by Ataturk. It could not have been done before now, but with the amazing technical wizardry now available, and after nearly ten years of research and the development of superb surround sound, it is possible to realize the beauties of the phenomenal building with an exactness heretofore unknown. Bing Hall on the Stanford University campus became the proving ground for this marvelous experiment, and after two concerts in 2013 and 2016, the fusion was complete, resulting in perhaps the most spectacular recording ever of Byzantine chant, and one of the most remarkable surround sound recordings I have heard.
Notice I did not mention the CD that accompanies this set. Because of the unique strictures of this attempt, you really do have to listen to it on a surround sound Blu-ray player. While the CD is excellent in many ways, and certainly the magnificent performances of Cappella Romana lose no luster in the transition, to get the full effect it is necessary to hear the genuine experience, and this can only be done in surround. But do hear it—it is important from musical, and historical vantage points! A 23-minute video documentary on the production is also included.