MAXIMILIAN STEINBERG: Passion Week, Op. 13; RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: Alleluia; Behold, the Bridegroom comes; Your bridal chamber; Do not weep for Me, Mother; Let all mortal flesh keep silence – Cappella Romana/ Alexander Lingas – Cappella Romana CR414, 61:57 [Distr. by Allegro] (3/25/15) *****:
When I finished college, even back in 1977, there were primarily two textbooks of orchestration in general use: Walter Piston’s Orchestration and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Principles of Orchestration. It was in the excellent editor’s introduction to this latter work that I first encountered the name of Maximilian Steinberg, friend of the composer and the one saddled with the completion of Rimsky’s last work of any type. Steinberg, who had graduated from St. Petersburg University in 1906 with a degree in biology, was tasked with this project only six years later after turning to music and finishing at the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1908. By 1915 he was a professor at the same place, having studied with Anatoly Lyadov in harmony and Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov in composition. Today his music is pretty much sunk in obscurity, even though Neeme Jarvi recorded two albums of Symphonies 1 & 2 and some miscellanies with the Gothenburg Symphony on DGG from 1980; little else has been done since.
Until now, that is. The close acquaintance (there is insufficient information as to how close they really were) of Stravinsky was in fact a Lithuanian Jew of means, but must have converted to the Russian Orthodox Church due to the fact that he married Rimsky’s daughter Nadezhda shortly before her father’s death in 1908. We can’t read too much into the idea of a non-Orthodox or even non-religious subsequently writing Orthodox Church music because history is littered with such examples, including Rimsky himself, an outward Orthodox who was at the very least a pantheist, perhaps even an atheist. But in Steinberg’s case it seems that he was indeed writing from the heart, so to speak.
His Op. 13 Passion Week is his seminal work in the genre, actually more a collection of pieces selected from various Holy Week services that could be used outside of the opus whole. It disappeared for many years to be found only in a few private hands. Fortunately one of these was an émigré Russian conductor named Igor Buketoff, who tried for years to get it performed (this is not easy music, and removed from the capabilities of most parish choirs). Ultimately it ended up in the hands of Alexander Lingas, and so here we go.
What does it sound like? Let me put it this way; though Rachmaninov was to return to the genre of pure Russian chant in the creation of his favorite and famous work All Night Vigil, even here he used many of his own melodies. In his case, what he created that was of his own provenance sounds very Russian indeed, almost as if his melodies were actually ancient chants themselves. Steinberg cannot make that claim; even though he adheres to the original chants (especially the Znamenny, which is more melismatic, stepwise, and actually a lot harder to harmonize than the otherwise simpler and more harmonization-oriented Kievan Chant) his musical boundaries were expanding, resulting in superbly-arranged chants that are drifting quite conspicuously from what many recognize as that peculiar Russian sound. For example, one of the most popular hymns in the Orthodox Church is called The Noble Joseph, first heard during Holy Week on Good Friday. Perhaps the most popular version of this piece involves a Bulgarian Chant, originally a Byzantine-style melody that achieved great acclaim in Russia through its harmonization. Yet I will venture to say that few people hearing the Steinberg composition on a Holy Friday afternoon will have any clue that their beloved chant is hiding under the composer’s clever, beautiful, and restrictive harmonies—you really have to be listening to detect the chant. No biggie—the Renaissance composers had been doing this sort of parody for hundreds of years. It’s just unusual for a Russian Church piece to disguise its origins so thoroughly! The rest of the pieces are not so obscured, but it is obvious that the things he learned from Rimsky are on display in spades; this is music with sparkling harmonies and remarkably tight construction, all the while advancing the art of church music while maintaining a true and authentic vehicle for genuine piety and ecclesiastical use.
I wish I could say the same for the Rimsky works. His church music, what we have of it anyway, has found a permanent place in the repertories of Russian and other Orthodox churches. Not surprising, due to its Kievan-based origins, fine word-setting, and simplicity of concept, it is a lot easier to sing (I doubt there is an Orthodox parish anywhere that doesn’t sing his Our Father as part of regular worship). But, smartly, Lingas has placed Holy Week pieces that correspond to what is found in the Steinberg Op. 13 on this disc, and the comparison is quite instructive. Rimsky is important in Russian Church music history, as he was one of the first that turned to the genuine article as the basis for composition, after years of composers straying from genuine chant history. But quite honestly, in comparison to his gifted pupil—though there is no doubt that Rimsky was the greater composer—the student surpasses the teacher.
Once again Alexander Lingas and his intrepid crew provide sterling and gorgeously recorded music in exacting and beautifully defined performances. Some will balk at a non-Russian choral group daring to sing this music—I have heard this nonsense before, and in fact my favorite recordings of the Rachmaninov Vigil are all non-Russian ensembles—but I think Steinberg would be the first to applaud this. The perfect Lenten gift has just become available.