Sunday 22 December 2013

Orders of Russian angels

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!


Susan Scheid said...

So many Russian, not to mention other, treasures on this post! The Tenebrae disk sounds like one I need to own--do I read correctly that you provided the liner notes? One CD you mention I DO have in my possession, finally: the Swan Lake CD. I'm looking forward to a quiet space and time to listen with liner notes in hand. On Britten, I'm reading Neil Powell's biography. Not sure what I think yet, but I'm enjoying it more than not. Have you read it? What, by the way, is the photograph at the head of the post--is that one of your own Russian treasures brought back from a trip there? (I remember that, a while back, you posted a photograph of a gorgeous cover of a score.) I wish I could linger here for longer, but my time is not my own this month. Still, I'm so pleased to come by and at least get a glimpse of all these riches!

David said...

No, Sue, I can't lay claim to the top image - it's a 1757 work by a Russian artist in the Greek Orthodox Church and Museum, Miskolc, Serbia.

Yes, the notes to that disc are mine. Very proud to have been associated with it - ditto Neeme's Tchaikovsky, with Nutcracker of course still to come - and looking forward to Tenebrae's concert associated with the official launch in January.

I decided not to read another Britten biography after Humphrey Carpenter's. Not that his was perfect, but I did weep at the way he described BB's death, and had built up a mixed but not unsympathetic picture. I'm not sure the present two contenders are as tender with their subject, and Kildea's theory of syphilis seems to have been discredited. Still too much of the man's music left to hear!

Susan Scheid said...

David: The Powell, given to me as a gift, is definitely sympathetic, though whether it would measure up to the one you read, who knows? The key thing, as you say, is the music, and I have reams of that left to explore. I have just read the TAD Britten 100 Moscow piece. Such a gorgeous, poignant piece it is. I didn't want it to end. So smart of you to invite him to report. (I wrote a comment on TAD, but it's been held up as spam. I reported it, so hopefully it will be let through.)

David said...

I've just come back from hearing Iestyn sing - heavenly well, as did the three other soloists and the Cambridge choir - in a top-notch Christmas Oratorio (or rather four parts out of the six). He's quite the writer, too, no? He started a blog which was so elegantly written, and I asked him for a strand in the Tavener tribute, which he was able to do with chapter and verse from his treble days. Glad you admired this chronicle of an historical occasion, as have so many others.

d said...

What about the orders of angels? Are the Orthodox orders ( "choirs") different from those of the medieval West?

Seraphs ( Hebrew plural Seraphim)
Cherubim ( see above)

These three adore the Godhead


These three organise the world


These three are concerned with mankind. "Archangels" is a term often used for the higher angels

Obviously one must be clear on these matters. Imagine mistaking a Throne for a Principality !!

David Damant said...

My last comment was from me - David Damant
But it lept away from em

David said...

I have glozed but superficially on the Orders, Sir David, but I think I'm right in saying that eastern and western Christianity more or less agree. There were, however, disputes among medieval scholars who argued the subdivisions in the three groups - which you see in the top illustration of the Russian icon in Serbia - differently. Certainly Jewish, Islamic and Zoroastrian orders are very much otherwise.

wanderer said...

What on earth is a Heaven in which there are orders? An earthly one, no doubt. No disrespect anyone, for the academia is surely as interesting as the concept that there is anything except absolute equality is alien to my beliefs.

The Death in Venice story link was really rewarding. Good on you. I like Bostridge (War Requiem) and the study presence of Peter C-W added a bit of local colour. He was the Multiple Colours in the last staged production here, with Philip Langridge no less.

David said...

Welcome here, too, wanderer. Of course you're right (I just used the orders as a pretext for a good lead image). Reminds me of the grandmother's wise words in Tove Jansson's The Summer Book, which I'm still shelling out copies of around this time. Her six year old granddaughter is going on about 'a great big enormous hell' and Granny gets cross:

' "Sophia," she said, "this is really not something to argue about. You can see for yourself that life is hard enough without being punished for it afterwards. We get comfort when we die, that's the whole idea".'

Don't get some of your DiV refs - all colours presumably means the dark roles. Bostridge is redeemed, for me, this year by virtue of the newly strong but still peculiar sound he makes (stunning in the Britten Canticles, though I don't much like them).

wanderer said...

Woops. Meant Mulitple Characters (the many baritone parts).

David Damant said...

Not exactly sure of the point about equality made by wanderer, but if a heaven without inequality is preferred I would suggest that equality and inequality are equally earthly concepts and in Heaven all will be different - since in Heaven there are neither male nor female (Galations 3 28), nor is anyone given in marriage (Matthew 22 30)etc - all is new ....we shall have to wait and see

David said...

One of the many cheering things the Pope has said this year is that the Catholic Church is abandoning the concept of a hell for punishment. Amen to that.

David Damant said...

Rather difficult for the Pope to amend the revelations in the Bible in that way. If one is a non believer, it is a very welcome change, but if one is a believer? Can one pick and choose?

David Damant said...

When I follow a performance - film, play, ballet - in which straight relationships are developed, I see it as a story. When the context is gay then, as a profoundly gay man, I see the point. Sometimes when watching a straight situation I have to translate the relationships in my mind into the gay world, to understand what is going on. Rather like in my early days feeling that at the ordinary night club or dance nothing was happening....whereas at later gay evenings I could feel the tension. So the Bourne ballet has an impact that the original version does not. This is independent of the quality of the performance