Sunday, September 20, 2015

(Un)Orthodox Transcendence: Rachmaninov's Chrysostom Liturgy

Nave of the Auenkirche, Berlin-Wilmersdorf
As a self-described liturgy nerd, I jumped at the chance to review a new recording of Rachmaninov's setting of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. The Rundfunkchor Berlin has a truly glorious sound, but the first thing that strikes the ear on this disc are the acoustics. These are also glorious. Berlin's Auenkirche gives great resonance to single voices and the ensemble, and the excitingly space-filling sound comes through well and cleanly on the recording. The layers of sound are gorgeous, serving Rachmaninov's harmonization and sometimes unconventional vocal writing well.
Despite Rachmaninov's best efforts, his setting of the Chrysostom Liturgy was not accepted for use in the services of the Orthodox Church. So, from its first performance onwards, it's been heard continuously, contrary to its design. To the credit of the Rundfunkchor Berlin and conductor Nicolas Fink, it feels here neither disjointed nor forced into an artificial homogeneity. The dynamic and expressive range of the choir is richly impressive. I found this particularly effective in the inventively-set antiphons. As I've often lamented, my Russian is virtually non-existent, but the sensitivity of the choir to the rich text of the liturgy is such that even I could appreciate its aptness. I found this particularly moving in the wonderful section  of the second antiphon that's traditionally translated as "conquering death by death," in reference to the Crucifixion. Another standout is the gorgeously ethereal Cherubic Hymn. (The CD booklet includes transliterated Russian text and an elegant German translation.) It was a surprise to me to learn, from the CD notes, that Rachmaninov was not intimately familiar with the liturgy before undertaking its setting. (Note: the English notes are considerably abridged from the German.) The finished setting is, of course, a tribute to Rachmaninov's style and sensibilities. But it is also deeply immersive, meditative... and perhaps inevitably for a setting of a 4th-century text, redolent of far more than the composer's own musical moment. The disc is available here.

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