The Sacred Spirit of Russia – Conspirare/ Craig Hella Johnson – Harmonia mundi

The Sacred Spirit of Russia – Conspirare/ Craig Hella Johnson – Harmonia mundi multichannel SACD HMU 807526, 77:50 [2/11/14] ****:

One thing should be made clear—though this SACD is titled The Sacred Spirit of Russia, most of the selections here are of comparatively recent origin (the last 150 years or so), not uncommon among albums like this, but yet again neglecting the rich heritage from the previous 700 years. Indeed, there is a lot of research to be done and unearthing to be accomplished which will really reveal the long-standing and vastly unknown liturgical chant legacy.

Another issue is the fact that the music here is hardly something you would hear in many normal Russian congregations today, and even during its time of composition performances were given only in the churches and cathedrals with the finest choirs. And many composers had their pieces refused completely for church usage as there was a lot of contention—as now—as to whether certain music was suitable for church worship.

Though the album gives us ostensibly something that might be heard “in the splendor of a Christmas liturgy from a Russian Cathedral” (highly unlikely), there are only three works here that are related specifically to Christmas—the Troparion, Today the Virgin, and A Wondrous Birth. The rest could be heard at almost any Sunday or festal liturgy the whole year.

Having eliminated the disclaimers, the music that is given is often supremely beautiful if not always churchly, most of them the standards that we have all come to expect in recordings like this. Being a fan for some time now of Conspirare, I must say I was surprised that they tackled an assignment like this, for the competition is fierce, even though my favorite two albums in the repertory are not by Russian choirs at all, but by the magnificent Holst Singers on Hyperion (Ikon I and II). But I would be less than honest if I did not say that this new release equals those in quality, as bass-rich as any Russian choir, and with surround sound that is perfectly judged for the nature of the choral forces. Johnson and company must have spent a lot of time with this repertory to gauge it so perfectly, and this becomes a top choice for anyone looking to acquaint themselves with this genre.


Anon.: Hymn to the Mother of God for the Nativity (Znamenny Chant)
Chesnokov: Come, let us worship, Op. 8 No. 2; Chant des Chérubins; Praise the Lord from the Heavens, Op. 42 No. 9; Do not cast me off in my old age, Op. 40 No. 5
Grechaninov: Slava I Edirodnii (Glory To The Only Begotten Son); The Creed; Our Father; Now the Powers of Heaven, Op. 58 No. 6 “Nïne silï nebesnïya”; Preserve, O Lord, for many years, Op. 79; 
Ilyashenko: We should choose to love silence (Concerto for the Nativity of Christ)
Ippolitov-Ivanov: Bless the Lord, O my Soul, Op. 37 No. 2
Kastalsky: The Great Doxology, Op. 57 No. 2; Today the Virgin Gives Birth; As many have been baptized; Milost’ mira (For the Mercy of Peace)
Kedrov: Otche nash (Our Father)
Martynov: The Beatitudes
Rachmaninov: Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, Op. 31: Let our mouths be filled; Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, Op. 31: Blessed be the name of the Lord
Sviridov: Christmas Troparion (Inexpressible Wonder); A wondrous birth, No. 7

—Steven Ritter

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