Definitely the cherubim and seraphim of Russian orthodox church music this year are a book and a CD. The book is the tender loving resurrection of our beloved late Noëlle Mann's work on an anthology for choirs to enjoy, as we did in the Kalina Choir under her guidance for all too few years. For that reason quite a few of the settings are familiar to me, though I'm racking my brains to remember the favourite - Chesnokov's Cherubic Hymn, I think.
It's also wonderful to have two settings of the birthday 'Mnogaya lyeta' ('Many years' or 'Long life') to hand. We used to sing Bortnyansky's version at the end, if memory serves, of every concert, but I'm also pleased to see Prokofiev's arrangements for either men's voices or seven-part chorus as taken from Ivan the Terrible, where the ceremonial scenes are a reminder that you could slip in orthodox music in Soviet times so long as it served the context of an historical film or play.
Heartfelt thanks to Noëlle's daughter Julia and her husband Kristian Hibberd for seeing everything through to publication as well as to Oxford University Press for making such a handsome job of it. There's also a very useful contextual introduction by Tatyana Soloviova.
I found out a great deal of interesting things about the luminaries of the style - Chesnokov, Kastalsky, Viktor (as opposed to the symphonist Vasily) Kalinnikov - when I was researching notes for that fabulous choir Tenebrae's new disc, Russian Treasures. The pathos of the Russian church music revival coming to a halt in 1917, and the fates of its strongest supporters, made for a moving background.
And the performances, which I had on an advance disc, formed a bedrock to my work. The famous low B flats of Russian basses are successfully emulated by the Tenebrae men on the first three tracks. There's special richness in the Cherubic Hymn of Moscow Synodal School disciple Nikolay Golovanov, later a conductor of incredible magnetism and eccentricity who was harried to death, like Prokofiev, in the last Stalin years. I think perhaps what haunts me most here is the way Chesnokov's 'Tebe poyem' works its way out of darkest B minor into light. It's a stunning collection, as good as any released by Russian choirs (though the Petersburg Cappella sound remains unlike any other worldwide).
This picture made me especially jolly when J showed it to me on Facebook. Standing are countertenor Iestyn Davies, tenor Ian Bostridge and baritone Peter Coleman-Wright in the Christmas-decorated Moscow home of the seated Rozhdestvenskys, great Gennady and his remarkable pianist wife Viktoria Postnikova. It made me especially glad to be reminded of the remarkable happening that occasioned the meeting - the Russian premiere of Britten's Death in Venice by one of his most stalwart Russian interpreters (Rozhdestvensky gave, inter alia, the first Soviet performances of A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1966 with Yelena Obraztsova as a mezzo Oberon). And now, 38 years after its birth, Britten's last opera arrived at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory.
In amidst all the grotesque Putinshchina (is that right?), it was something of a miracle: an opera by a gay composer based on a novella by a gay author (Thomas Mann) about a gay man (Gustav von Aschenbach) longing for a beautiful youth, performed in a conservatory named after another gay composer (Tchaikovsky). I'm guessing that the performance, headed incidentally by four straight men, passed without censure only because it was done in concert - the elephant in the room would have been the exquisite dancing Tadzio.
Anyway, full marks to the British Council, whose photos these are, for facilitating it. I asked Iestyn on his return if he'd write about the experience for The Arts Desk - and he did, brilliantly. While we're on what would surprise Tchaikovsky, I've declared it repeatedly over the last 18 years: the very thought of the grand Pas de deux, Pas d'action, call it what you will, in Swan Lake's second act being danced so tenderly and lovingly by two men would have been unimaginable to him. But still it goes on its rapturously-received way, Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake with its virile, dangerous male swans, and at Sadler's Wells the other week the revival showed no signs of wear and tear. I'm glad to have gone again and written about it for TAD.
The 'Odette/Odile' this time was the tall and sexy Jonathan Ollivier, pictured above with Sam Archer as the Prince by Hugo Glendinning and in many ways a fine replacement for Adam Cooper of sainted memory. We even got an orchestra back after several years of pre-recorded compromise. I praised it enthusiastically, much to the delight of conductor Brett Morris, who sent me a warm e-mail; time and again you find the music overlooked in ballet reviews, so I was happy to redress the balance. And I'm happy now - two days after putting up this post - to revisit the first Prince-Swan pairing as filmed in 1996, Scott Ambler as a superbly tortured prince and the dream swan king Adam Cooper. The picture isn't the best, but I wanted just that Pas de deux as it brings tears to my eyes whenever I watch it.
Serendipitously coinciding, Neeme Järvi's Bergen Philharmonic recording of the score on Chandos, absolutely complete, arrived a week before the return visit. As with their Sleeping Beauty, I've written the notes, indulging my long-term wish to do a number-by-number synopsis, so I can't praise it anywhere else. But I DO think this is as good as it gets, pending re-release of Rozhdestvensky's Moscow Radio Symphony version - and even that doesn't have the benefit of such extraordinary sound.
James Ehnes is once again the solo violinist, Johannes Wik has licence as before to work his individual magic on the harp cadenzas and Bergen cornettist Gary Peterson's playing in the Danse Napolitaine is out of this world. Järvi toys so beautifully with rhythms, melodies and reprises: sometimes brisk, sometimes leisurely, he's always unpredictable. Buy!