SHCHEDRIN: The Sealed Angel – Inese Romancāne, soprano / Zane Zilberte, mezzo-soprano / Jurģis Liepnieks, tenor / Patriks Stepe, boy soprano /Matīss Circenis, boy alto /Dita Krenberga, flute /State Choir Latvia / Māris Sirmais – Wergo WER 6732 2, 60:54 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] *****:

I was surprised to read reviewers’ reactions to the release of Rodion Shchedrin’s The Enchanted Wanderer on the Mariinsky label earlier this year. Echoing and outdoing the critical barbs tossed in New York when the work had its American premiere in 2002, Andrew Clements in the Guardian wrote a critique that bordered on character assassination. While trashing The Enchanted Wanderer, Clements seemed to imply that Shchedrin had been a water carrier for the Communist Party as head of the Soviet Composer’s Union (a gig, by the way, that Shchedrin took over from politico-cultural icon Dmitri Shostakovich). But others of Shchedrin’s compositions, including The Sealed Angel, tell a different story.

This work followed the 1987 Stikhira, a song of praise for orchestra written in anticipation of the celebration in 1988 of the thousand-year anniversary of Russian Christianity. Writing The Sealed Angel was an even more risky venture in the waning days of Communism. Based on the Russian Orthodox liturgy, somewhat abbreviated by the composer, the work follows in the tradition of other famous settings by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. Today, Shchedrin doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge his debt to his musical forebears, or his ties to the Orthodox Church. “In my family, the connection to the Russian Orthodox religion was deep and authentic. My father came from a family of clerics. . . . My mother was also a believer. When I was born, my parents had me secretly baptized in a church in Sokolniki on the edge of Moscow, which at that time was certainly not without danger. . . .”

In 1988, however, as a matter of policy Shchedrin veiled the liturgical basis of his work by linking it to a novella of Nikolai Leskov written in 1873. Leskov’s The Sealed Angel tells the story of an icon painter named Sebastian whose painting of an angel is covered over with sealing wax by government officials in an act of religious suppression. In the course of the story Sebastian seeks to restore the icon, suggesting the irrepressible power of both art and religion to sustain the spirit. Even with his clever evasion, it’s clear that Shchedrin was making a similar statement about art and religion in a Communist state. Apparently, though, the evasion worked; The Sealed Angel had its premiere at Tchaikovsky Hall in Moscow in 1988 and went on to win the State Prize of Russia.

Another feature that separates Shchedrin’s work from the Orthodox musical tradition is the inclusion of a solo flute, something which has always been proscribed by the Church hierarchy; the liturgy is an a capella affair in the Orthodox Church. The scoring for flute seems to have been a nostalgic gesture on the composer’s part. As Shchedrin explains, “In addition to the choir, I used in this score a solo wind instrument, the old Russian shepherd’s flute (the svirel) whose antiphonal exchanges across the shores of the Oka I often heard in my childhood.” In rehearsals, though, the svirel proved so unreliable, even playing the fairly simple music Shchedrin had written for it, that it was replaced by the modern concert flute (in some performances, an oboe).

The Sealed Angel is framed by movements fore and aft based on exactly the same text, an invocation of the Angel of God. The music of these sections is quiet, almost static, as are other parts of the score, making one think initially of the holy minimalism of Pärt or Tavener. But Shchedrin’s music is a thing unto itself. Its motive power lies not in endless, flowing consonance but in the resolution of often grinding dissonances. The Sealed Angel commands a far wider dynamic range, too, than you’ll hear in Part or Taverner—or Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff, for that matter. In this regard, Schedrin’s work is almost novelistic, with its ecstatic outbursts in Section II (“Because the Lord has been revealed to us, blessed be the name of God. Alleluia.”), its anguished lament over the Betrayal in Section IV (“Ungodly Judas, darkened by his love for money, betrayed thee, the righteous Judge, to lawless judges”). This is music that is both ear-pleasing and eventful.

Throughout, the quiet purling of the flute acts as a bridge between the sections. Does it represent the voice of the Angel? the pastoral tradition that casts Jesus as the Good Shepherd? I can’t say, but it’s a novel touch that proceeds with the surefootedness of the repeated but variegated appearance of the Promenade in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

The present recording was taken from a live performance in July 2009 during the Rheingau Music Festival. A hesitant entry here, an extraneous bang there tells you this is a live performance—plus, of course, the enthusiastic applause at the end. Also, the boy soprano has trouble tuning his instrument as the work progresses, which is unfortunate but, again, understandable and forgivable. Overall, this is a gorgeously sung, highly moving musical experience. The sound recording, too, is remarkable. Captured in the basilica of Eberbach Monastery in the Rheingau, it suggests vast spaces, yet the choir and soloists are all present and accounted for—no churchly veiling of the sound here. A real stereoistic sense of depth as well.

This beautiful disc will get frequent spins on my system in future, I can tell you. I highly recommend it.

— Lee Passarella