Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

Transcending the Great Schism: Divine Orthodox Music at the Anglican Cathedral – from the Tudor Consort

By , 05/11/2021

ICONIC
The Tudor Consort
Michael Stewart, director
With Andrew Joyce (cello soloist)

Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul

Saturday 24 July  (rescheduled from 26 June)  2021

Review posted 5th November 2021

What? A review of a concert that happened all the way back in July?? Appearing on Middle C in November???

Yes, the bad news is that your faithful reviewer overcommitted herself and failed to review this concert in a timely fashion.  The good news is that this luminous programme by the Tudor Concert is almost as fresh in my memory now as it was in late July, where it formed a highlight of the Wellington choral calendar.  The even better news is that The Tudor Consort has another concert coming up THIS VERY SATURDAY, November 6, so if you missed their foray into Russian Orthodox music — or are simply ready for their next outing — you can satisfy your appetite for their ethereal, impeccably tuned sound this weekend. (Tickets are available at their website: https://www.tudor-consort.org.nz/)

Full disclosure: I arrived at the concert with a vested interest of sorts, having consulted for the choir on the finer points of Church Slavonic pronunciation.  Let me therefore reassure readers that the choir’s Slavonic pronunciation — albeit of no great concern to anyone but myself — was excellent, with only one or two tell-tale “soft” Ls where “hard” Ls should have been.

On to the main event — the music!  The choir created a properly solemn and devotional atmosphere from the outset, by beginning with the ritually appropriate opening exclamation, glorifying the Trinity, shared between priest (bass) and deacon (tenor), and responded to by the choir with the “Amin'” that begins the actual published score of Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil (Op. 37)  Coming at the beginning of the concert, this had the effect of an invocation, calling on the audience to attend to the music as sacred, not merely aesthetically pleasing.  Other audience members I spoke to shared my impression that this actually did deepen their focus on the music. Of course, hearing sacred music in a sacred space also contributes to the sense of atmosphere that the composers strove to create.

The choir continued with the two opening movements of the Vigil: Priidite, poklonimsia (Come, Let Us Worship) and Blagoslovi, dushe moya, Gospoda (Bless the Lord, O My Soul). These were taken a touch faster than I would have done them — it is quite tricky to give Rachmaninoff’s music time enough to breathe without letting it stretch so far that it attenuates.  (Robert Shaw’s much-admired 1990 recording, which introduced the Vigil to Western audiences, leans too far in the latter direction in my opinion.)  Apart from musical considerations, the music is physically challenging to sing and the singers, as well as the music, need time to breathe — so that the tempo is always, in some sense, a contest for oxygen between the score and its performers.  In conclusion, there is much to balance!  The Priidite lost a little of its majesty at the faster tempo, but this was compensated for by the choir’s meticulous attention to tuning and dynamics — the latter being awe-inspiring at any speed. In the Blagoslovi, the alto soloist seemed to want to move more quickly than the choir; an effect that was not entirely out of place with the mood of this movement as a whole, in which the alto soloist represents the earthly, restless and passionate voice of humanity framed by a celestial choir of sopranos, tenors, and the de rigueur Russian low basses, moving in a measured homophony above and below. The soloist, Anna-Maria Kostina, brought a suitably dark, embodied sound to her melodic line, based on the traditional Orthodox chant for this psalm, while the sopranos and male voices provided a transparent, ethereal harmonic backdrop.  The basses nailed their final low “C” (that’s the one two ledger lines below the stave, for those keeping score) to thrilling effect.

The stellar work from the bass section continued in John Tavener’s Song for Athene, where the basses have to maintain a solid drone on two Fs an octave apart for the entire duration of the piece — over 6 minutes. Incredibly difficult to do without wavering or passing out! This drone is one of two elements that can make or break the piece; the other is the rising and falling scales on “Alleluia” which must be justly tuned to the drone. Tuning is where the Tudor Consort shines brightest, and they absolutely hit this piece for six — anyone in the audience hearing it for the first time must surely have felt goosebumps as each new harmony was lifted out and presented clearly to our ears, the dynamics swelling from pp to ff to thrilling effect (in my notes I just have the word “DYNAMICS” in all caps with two happy faces next to it). Famously performed at Princess Diana’s funeral, this is probably Tavener’s best-known composition, but I haven’t heard a better performance of it than the one the Tudor Consort gave here.

Next up were two more obscure works by Arvo Pärt and Georgii Sviridov, respectively.  Pärt’s austere Summa (1977) — a setting of the Credo text in Latin — was sung by a smaller group drawn from the full choir.  This work also exists in an arrangement for strings, and I’m inclined to think its minimalism works better in that format; the music doesn’t seem to correspond to the text in any way, and I found the lack of correspondence somewhat distracting. The repetitious, episodic phrasing sounds weirdly inexpressive in the human voice, especially given a text as narrative as the Credo. Despite an excellent performance, this piece didn’t move from the “competent” into the “transcendent” column for me.  Sviridov’s Trisagion (“Holy God”/Svyatyi Bozhe), from his collection Hymns and Prayers (1980-97), was of greater interest.

Sviridov, a quintessentially Soviet composer strongly influenced by Shostakovich, composed primarily choral music but for political reasons could not write sacred music for most of his life. Nonetheless, Orthodox liturgical singing was a crucial source of inspiration for him — something critics have been able to discuss and analyse freely only since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 — and the post-Soviet resurgence of the Russian Orthodox Church allowed him, finally, to compose explicitly in the tradition that had inspired him for so long. The Hymns and Prayers thus stand in a kind of bookend relationship to Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil (1915): one the last gasp of the Russian choral Golden Age before the Revolution, the other groping for reconnection to that severed tradition after a 75-year detour.  One cannot, of course, compare them: while Orthodox music is generally more homophonic than Western sacred music, Rachmaninoff’s choral writing is almost orchestral in its assignment of different roles and colors to different voice parts, and he uses polyphony to create narrative movement, often almost seeming to “translate” the text into musical language (in a completely different way from the word-painting of a Weelkes or a Monteverdi; Rachmaninoff depicts the mood of the text rather than concrete images). The Sviridov settings, on the other hand, are purely chordal; one feels they could be transposed up or down to suit whatever group of voices (women, men, children, etc.) one might have on hand.  The effect lies in the transparency of the harmony, the wide diapason (from angelic thirds in the upper soprano range to rumbly low Cs in the basses) and in the dynamics, all fully animated by the Tudor Consort both here and in the “Come Let Us Worship” movement, which they performed in the second half.

Though enjoyable, Sviridov’s Trisagion felt mostly valuable as an introduction to the text (in Slavonic, “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us”) much more dramatically set by John Tavener in the piece that closed the first half, Svyati (1995). Almost seven times longer than the Sviridov setting, Tavener’s composition incorporates a solo cello (the incomparable Andrew Joyce) in the role of priest or cantor, playing a molto rubato, passionate but austere chant-like solo line over (yes) a bass drone on a low E. The rest of the choir gradually fills in, moving from a “tender, radiant” pianissimo to a “strong, but pleading” forte in 12 parts. I have Opinions about this piece and they did not always coincide with the performers’; Joyce added portamento touches to the cello line that felt a bit too Western-Romantic to me (Tavener notes that the cello should be “played without any sentiment of a Western character”), and some of the moving parts felt a bit lost in the vast space of the Cathedral. However, the performance was very effective and the ending in particular — with the cello playing impossibly high harmonics and the choir singing pianissimo — was absolutely ravishing.

The second half of the concert alternated bits and pieces from Rachmaninoff’s Vigil (Op. 37) and Liturgy (Op. 31) with further entries from Sviridov, Pärt, and Tavener. I’ve already mentioned the Sviridov “Come Let Us Worship” which opened this part of the program. This was followed by two hymns to the Virgin Mary, by Pärt and Rachmaninoff. The Pärt setting was unexpectedly fast, with something of the quality of a Christmas carol sung under one’s window by a group of singers trying to keep warm. In complete contrast, the Rachmaninoff setting (from the Vigil) approached the text with a gentle reverence much more typical of Orthodox treatments of this “feminine” hymn, but swelling to a majestic ff for the high notes on the final “Rejoice” before pulling back to a more lullaby-like pp for the final phrase.  Next came one more movement from the Vigil, “Kvalite” (“Praise the name of the Lord”): here as elsewhere, I felt the tempo was a little rushed, and this was the only time in the programme where I felt the sopranos were a little overtaxed, with fast-moving forte high notes in three-way divisi, but really it seems churlish to say so given how angelic they sounded for 99% of the concert.

A return to the Virgin Mary theme with Tavener’s Hymn to the Mother of God (this one sans bass drone, which must have delighted the basses, but the trademark dramatic dynamics and stained-glass harmonies were in full evidence) was followed by something completely unexpected: a Pärt setting of a Gospel text, The Woman with the Alabaster Box (1997; text from Mt. 26:6-13). I had never heard this before and found it very interesting. Unlike the other Pärt works on the program, this one seemed closely attentive to narrative structure, moving in three sections; first, the opening story about the woman’s actions, carried mostly by women’s voices; second, the discussion between Jesus and the disciples about it, carried mostly by men’s voices with the basses voicing Jesus, touching off isolated syllables like phosphorescent traces in the upper voices; and third, the “Verily I say…” peroration, given by the full choir in stately descending chords.  I don’t know that this was necessarily my favourite piece from the second half, but it was the most surprising and made me want to take a closer look at Pärt’s many settings of Gospel texts (I had only been familiar with his Passio previously).

Finally, two movements from Rachmaninoff’s Liturgy of St John Chrysostom rounded out the program.  The Liturgy feels more domestic to me than the Vigil and in that sense these felt slightly anticlimactic (and the Russian in me felt mildly scandalized that singers were allowed to take breaths in between phrases — totally normal in Western singing but strongly discouraged on the other side of the Great Schism!).  The “Tebe poem” (To Thee We Sing) is a gorgeous, hushed wave of choral sound from which emerges a soprano soloist (name not listed, alas) somewhat like a mermaid, momentarily embodying the prayers of the masses. Michael Stewart enhanced this effect by having the choir hum rather than sing under the solo line. A small disagreement over timing saw the soloist reach the finish line ahead of the choir.  The concert closed on the Cherubic Hymn from the same work, which performs the opposite trick; instead of a soprano voice arising from the harmonies created by the choir, here the harmonies gradually unfold from a single unison “D” in the upper voices, which unfurls through cascading downward scales in the second soprano and alto parts until the tenors and, finally, the basses are swept into the harmony.  At the end, everyone stays in, but the scales rise again until the sopranos are back on their original “D.”  In a way, it tells the whole story of sacred music — from monody all the way to jubilant 9-part harmony with operatic-sounding sopranos and back again. In that sense, it formed a fitting capstone to a lovely concert.  Everyone I spoke to afterward felt, with me, that we had been treated to a very distinguished example of what a concert of sacred music in a sacred space can be.

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