Tchaikovsky – Liturgy of St John Chrysostom
Matthew Best, conductor
Helios, 1997 (2012)
This recording is simply entitled Tchaikovsky. Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, but actually this work constitutes only the second part of the programme, the first being occupied by Nine Sacred Pieces and by Angel vopiyashe, so that it is better to consider it an overview of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s little known sacred music and not a single work album, especially as the Corydon Singers perform only ten out of fifteen numbers of the main work.
In the second volume of his biography on Tchaikovsky, David Brown reported the text of a composer’s letter addressed to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck in which the difficulties to write church music, due to restrictions in printing and the Italian style which became popular in the 18th century, are summarized. Tchaikovsky points out that «the composer has a huge and as yet scarcely touched field of activity. I concede there is some worth in Bortnyansky, Berezovsky and such like – but little is their music in harmony with the byzantine style of architecture and ikons, with the whole structure of the Orthodox service! Did you know that the composition of music for the church is a monopoly of the Imperial Chapel’s musical establishment, that it is forbidden to print and to sing in churches everything not included in the list of compositions monopoly and flatly refuses to allow new attempts to set sacred texts? My publisher, Jurgenson, has found means of getting round this strange law, and if I write something for the church, he will then publish my music abroad».
The Liturgy of St John Chrysostom is only one of many liturgies of the Orthodox Church as in this case “liturgy” does not mean the Mass, but it indicates the Eucharistic service only. The Liturgy of St John Chrysostom is generally used on Sundays and weekdays, but there are liturgies as that of St Basil the Great, which is used only ten times a year, or the Liturgy of the Presanctified, used on Wednesdays and Fridays in Lent and on the first three days of the Holy Week – and other liturgies performed in precise days or periods of the liturgical year.
Tchaikovsky decided to compose his own Liturgy of St John Chrysostom in 1878, completing it in little more than a month and a half, but the copies published in 1879 by Jurgenson were seized on the grounds that the director of the Imperial Chapel did not give his approval and the composer had to wait two years before his right of publication was definitively passed by a court. In the meanwhile, the Liturgy was performed at the University Church in Kiev in 1879 and in a concert version in Moscow in 1880.
The Nine Sacred Choruses Tchaikovsky wrote few years later (1884-1885) were born under a lucky star, especially as the first three of them were composed with the blessing of Tsar Alexander III, who greatly admired of Tchaikovsky and once declared to be stunned that he did not wrote church music more often. Despite the imperial approval, some of Tchaikovsky’s detractors sharply criticized his outcome and accused him of secularism and even atheism. The nine sacred pieces were arranged with piano in 1885.
The last piece, Angel vopyiashe (“an angel cried out”) was written in 1887 for the inaugural concert of the Moscow Choral Society, but later disappeared and was discovered only in 1906 in the library of a Moscow choirmaster. The booklet notes describe it as «an impressive work, a miniature drama constructed from minimal resources».
The Corydon Singers, conducted by Matthew Best, make every effort to perform the Liturgy and the Nine Sacred Pieces stressing their holy character, independently from the original inspiration, religious or not (Tchaikovsky once wrote to his patroness that, although he was «still bound to the Church by strong ties», he had «long ceased to believe in the dogma»). The result is excellent. The reverberation of the voices creates the right atmosphere to enjoy the unaccompanied singing and the good sound allows to appreciate the luminosity of the upper register and the delicacy and the strength of certain passages (the ideal blend of this sensitive approach is exemplified by the first piece of the Liturgy). The three Kheruvimskye Pesni (“the Cherubic hymns”) which opens the recording are sung in an ethereal, a little hieratic way, while Otche Nash (the Russian for the prayer “Our Father”) is characterized by ineffable tenderness.
Generally speaking, the Nine Sacred Pieces and the Angel vopyiashe can be considered the expression of a kind of spirituality that, being not grave, is nonetheless serious and contemplative and the Corydon Singers endow these works with an intimate character that does not belong to the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. This one is more joyous and maybe its “more open” character (I dare to call it “theatrical” in the first two pieces) will be more accessible to a Western listener, but the point is that the Corydon Singers perform the Liturgy as if they are singing it during a service, therefore directing it to a wide audience.
This is a subtle but very important difference that divides into two halves the recording. In the first part, the listener may have the impression that the Corydon Singers are singing only for him or her, while in the second an ecumenical idea is conveyed and connects that listener to his or her fellow men. This is the most valuable aspect of this recording of the Nine Sacred Pieces, of Angel vopyiashe and of the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom and it must not be underestimated next to the fine performance of Tchaikovsky’s music.