BENEDICT SHEEHAN: Vespers – The St. Tikhon Choir/ Benedict Sheehan – Cappella Records multichannel SACD CR423, 59:29 *****:
This is a difficult album to review. Sheehan, fresh off the excitement and success of his Divine Liturgy not too long ago, has turned his attention to the service of Great Vespers in the Orthodox tradition. One of his admitted models, and with good reason, is the usually misnamed Vespers of Sergei Rachmaninov. That piece, which is not a vespers service but what is called the “All-night Vigil” in the Russian Orthodox Church (though it doesn’t last all night—but that is another story) is said to be one of Rachmaninov’s own three favorite pieces, the others being The Bells and the Symphonic Variations, an assessment I enthusiastically agree with. So, it has haunted composers seeking to write something in the Russian Orthodox style ever since, itself modeled on Tchaikovsky’s own, though decidedly inferior, efforts.
An intimidating and large task indeed, to come up with something in that genre. To be fair in the attempt, Sheehan does not confine himself to that schema exclusively; While there are parts of this opus that sound thoroughly Russian, his musical language is more evolved than that which the hyper-conservative romantic Russian dared tread. And Sheehan, being American, has an advantage in drawing on the multitudinous eclecticism of Orthodox America. Virtually every national Orthodox church in the world has found friendly ground here for almost as many reasons as there are churches. Though somewhat segregated in times past, the more recent 50 years or so have found a wondrous cross-pollination in nearly every Orthodox church in the USA. The results have been fascinating, if somewhat perplexing. Byzantine chant, for instance, which was once doggedly dogmatic in performance rituals, now finds itself harmonized in ways that were once ruggedly objected to (and still are in many quarters). With the influx of converts, as is Sheehan, and many of them musicians, the ability to read ancient Byzantine and Znammeny chants in their original Greek and Slavic languages for church performance is a continuous struggle. Even the Byzantine notation is in some places being reset with English words to try and half-accommodate some of the issues and to prevent the art form from dying out—a noble effort indeed.
Sheehan takes notice of what seems like the entire Orthodox American experience in his music. Some of his chordal structures sound a lot like the contemporary choral inclinations in America, Britain, and the Nordic countries for close harmonies, and ecstatically packed contrapuntal lines. There are also hints of John Tavener’s Orthodox works in places; whether Sheehan is consciously influenced in this manner is hard to say, but it does make for a quite flavorful experience in toto. The religious sentiment is undoubtedly deep—one feels the seriousness of purpose in every bar, and the entire work resonates with a purposeful and highly-evolved sense of faith and meaning.
What I am not sure of are the practical implications of the piece. Rachmaninov’s All-night Vigil was composed with Russian chant as its base or composed chants that are so idiomatic that many people today think that they are genuine. But the work is large and way beyond the abilities of most Orthodox choirs to attempt more than a few of the individual pieces in a church setting, and these are often scaled down or arranged to facilitate such performances. I don’t expect to ever hear it complete in a church setting. I sense the same thing about Sheehan’s splendid effort—I am not sure what the intended purpose is. This is a whopping work that makes a lot of near-virtuosic demands on the choir, and I can’t imagine it in an everyday liturgical setting. His Divine Liturgy was done that way on a live video, but this time the music has expanded to a different level with many soloists and choral demands far outside the capabilities of most Orthodox church choirs. And, honestly, I am not sure it would work in that setting anyway. Sheehan, in writing this piece, has made The Big Statement, and the music is so engaging as to possibly evade the traditional Orthodox ethos as music enhancing the prayerfulness of the congregant—if it is too beautiful, too seductive in its rich attractiveness, then one pays too much attention to it as the principal element of the worship experience as opposed to something that facilitates worship. This might seem an odd statement to those coming from non-Orthodox Christian settings, but it is part and parcel of the Orthodox worship experience. I fear it might be too distracting in a liturgical setting!
Of course, opinions will vary on this, and everyone listening will make their own determinations in this regard. But for me, as it was for Rachmaninov, and I suspect Sheehan as well on some level, this is a marvelous, gorgeously rendered and profoundly personal expression of deep faith using the platform of the Orthodox vespers service that might be heard to best effect in a concert setting where one hundred percent of one’s attention can be on the music. This is hardly a bad thing—there are many sacred works in the repertory that are more suited to this format. I find this music glowing, inspiring and capable of great emotion and exultation, and one listens with rapt attention to its many marvels. It truly brings a fresh and new sensitivity to a very old and revered tradition, maintaining the deepest respect while adding something important and exciting to its modern evolution.
Sheehan has the advantage of his wonderful St. Tikhon Choir, resident at the oldest Orthodox monastery in the United States in South Canaan, Pennsylvania. They are well-drilled and fluidly adept to the technical difficulties involved, with firm, smooth and well-balanced singing from top to bottom. The recording, done in splendidly resonant surround sound at St. Stephen’s pro-Cathedral in Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania, is a testament to the Soundmirror engineers, a model of how this type of music should be captured. Highest recommendation.