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Music’s poetry, deepest joys

24 July 2015

Roderic Dunnett hears Orthodox texts that moved Tchaikovsky

Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, op. 41 (composed in the summer of 1878), and others of his sacred pieces dating from 1884, sung in Old Church Slavonic, in the spacious and gratifying acoustic of Malmesbury Abbey. Tchaikovsky described the former, the first-ever unified cycle of the liturgy, first heard in Kiev in 1879 and Moscow in 1880, as “altogether one of the happiest moments of my career”.

“Stepping into church,” the composer wrote, “I find it is impossible not to be moved by the liturgy. I love Vespers. I very often attend the services. If we follow carefully, and enter into the meaning of every ceremony, it is impossible not to be profoundly moved by the Orthodox liturgy . . . to be startled from one’s trance by a burst from the choir; to be carried away by the poetry of this music; to be thrilled when the words ‘Praise the name of the Lord!’ ring out — all this is infinitely precious to me! It is one of my deepest joys!”

Not far from Bath, in St John the Baptist, Cirencester, a highly successful experiment was taking place. Tchaikovsky’s other large-scale sacred choral work, the unaccompanied Vespers, op. 52, of 1881-82, was performed by a different amateur group, the Gloucestershire Choral Weekend Choir, an ensemble of mainly but not exclusively older singers who meet once a year. The conductor, Gregory Rose, has produced a version of the Vespers for the first time in English. This world première proved surprisingly satisfying.

What was apparent, not least thanks to the choir’s diligent rehearsal and admirable enunciation, was how exceptionally well this music works when sung in English. One might have expected the impact and nuance of hearing it sung in Slavonic would be lost. But the performance was satisfying, involving, and, in places, strikingly moving.

Vespers is in a sense a misnomer, as Tchaikovsky’s music here sets eloquent texts from three sources: vespers, matins, and the first hour. The work was preceded by a short work, the Ave Maria of Grieg, who met Tchaikovsky in Leipzig in 1888. Grieg sets the verse in separate stanzas; already the strong lead from the upper voices and the intelligent restraint from tenors and basses marked this choir out as highly competent.

For all their preparation, the work must have provided quite a sight-reading marathon for the ensemble. One was struck by their precision in no. 3, “Blessed is the man who has not walked in the counsel of the ungodly” (originally Blazhen Muzh); in the next, despite the odd slip, the Russian Orthodox feel was so intense here, marked out by stylish repetitions, that one could only relish hearing the work sung in translation. “Gladsome radiance” (Svyete Tichi) is especially rich, opening up into seven parts, drawing on Kievan chant that speeds up into fast-moving quavers.

No. 8, Greek Orthodox in origin in this slightly mongrel work, has thick textures that are a little trickier to carry off. No. 9, “Blessed art thou, O Lord” (Blagosloven esi Gospodi) provides one of the severest challenges, owing to varying bar-lengths, which alter in quick succession. No matter: the choir triumphed, not least in the lightly bounced alleluias that conclude it.

A highlight, inevitably, is Tchaikovsky’s setting of the Magnificat, which has no barlines at all, and requires exceptional concentration, the treatment attractively punctuated by the refrain “More honourable than the cherubim”. Equally pleasing was the Sanctus, in which the choir was extremely together, thanks to careful concentration. “Both now and for ever” and “To thee, great and victorious leader of triumphant hosts” made a highly satisfying conclusion; the intervening Great Doxology still awaits a translation.

All in all, this pleasing experiment patently proved its point: the Vespers and Orthodox chant can work well in translation, and this carefully amassed version deserves to prove a tangible asset to choirs who wish to perform the work without facing the exigencies of a tricky Slavonic original.

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