“Teach Me Thy Statutes” = CHESNOKOV: Music from the All-Night Vigil and the Divine Liturgy – Choir of the Patriarch Tikhon Russian-American Musical Institute (PaTRAM)/ Choir of the Moscow Representation of the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra/ Hierarchical Men’s Choir of the Saratov Diocese/ Vladimir Gorbik – Reference Recordings fresh! Multichannel SACD FR-727, 67:14 *****:

Pavel Chesnokov (1877 – 1944) was a seminal composer for mainly liturgical chant of the Russian Orthodox Church that crossed the boundaries of pre-revolutionary times until well in the period of Soviet domination and aggression. Though he was quite successful—and noted—as a choral conductor and composer, he did not enroll in the Moscow Conservatory until the age of 36, graduating with a major in conducting and composition, and he and his choir had the honor of participating in the re-establishment of the Patriarchal throne (the first time since the dissolution by Peter the Great) with the enthronement of Patriarch—and later Saint—Tikhon (who had also been Archbishop of America before returning to Russia). Chesnokov was prolific—over 500 choral works are ascribed to his pen.

Originally, until around the 1700s, singing in the Russian church parallels that of the Byzantine churches, meaning the music was canonically inscribed as monophonic. Eventually this changed, probably under the influence of the “reforms” of Peter the Great, and harmonized, western-style compositions became the norm, along with the abandonment—at least in parishes—of the traditional Znammeny chant for the easier Obikhod, much simpler in nature and not unlike the Anglican psalm settings in terms of multiple words set to basic chordal structures. However, in the seminaries, schools, and larger cathedrals and monasteries, more complex choral music became the norm, though even relatively calm settings like Tchaikovsky’s Divine Liturgy were rejected by the synodal censors as being too untraditional.

Portrait Pavel Chesnokov

Pavel Chesnokov

By Chesnokov’s time there arose a movement to get back to the traditional monophonic chants with the idea of incorporating them into the existing harmonized liturgical compositions. Chesnokov was a master of this—he uses many of these older chants in a brilliant manner, highlighting their melodic content without obscuring their tone or feeling. Of course, nowadays Russian liturgical music is assumed to be choral and large, as given testament by the many and famous choirs that have recorded it, to the detriment of the original chants, and this is a shame. Even so, the churchliness and spirit of the originals is easily to be found in composers like the one under consideration.

The three male choirs here—around 42 voices strong—make a glorious sound indeed in this selection of the main pieces from the so-called All-night Vigil (two to four hours in length, and the standard Saturday evening and Great Feast service of the Russian Church) and the Divine Liturgy, the everyday standard eucharistic service in the Orthodox Church in general. Though the producer’s intent is to present a pure and monastic vision of this music, this would be possible only in the larger monasteries—not all enjoy the richness of a 42-member choir—but even so it is nice to hear the music in a manner that Chesnokov surely envisioned it. The combined choir is simply stunning, and the resonance and perfectly-captured acoustic of the Church of St. John the Theologian at the Saratov Orthodox Theological Seminary is a tribute to the excellence of recording engineer John Newton, a wonderful surround sound product. One hopes that Reference will return soon to this genre!

Tracklist:
1. Bless The Lord, O My Soul
2. Blessed Is The Man
3. Gladsome Light
4. Lord, Now Lettest Thou
5. Praise The Name Of The Lord
6. Blessed Art Thou, O Lord
7. Having Beheld The Resurrection Of Christ
8. Jesus Has Risen From The Tomb
9. The Great Doxology
10. Bless The Lord, O My Soul
11. Glory… Only Begotten Son
12. Cherubic Hymn
13. A Mercy Of Peace And We Hymn Thee
14. It Is Truly Fitting
15. Salvation Is Created

—Steven Ritter