The Gramophone, January 2011
A passionate and moving setting of the words of a Russian Orthodox priest
Fr Alexander Men (1935-90) was a Russian Orthodox priest, theologian, scholar and writer. He was also a martyr – he was killed en route to his parish. While his writings, which are manifold, are not so far widely known among western Christians, his impact on the Orthodox world has been deep and wide-ranging. This recording, of an extended choral work setting prayers by Fr Alexander, appearing on the 20th anniversary of his death, is timely indeed.
The texts, while they are permeated with reminiscences of the Byzantine liturgy, are very personal indeed, and for that reason Alexander Levine (b.1955) has been able to react to them in an equally personal fashion, being guided by the words and the emotional contours of the prayers. But his music is also luminous, because these texts, apparently paradoxically, also embrace the whole of humanity – as he writes in "A Prayer for the Disciples of Christ", "May everything good and beautiful in the world remind us of You". Levine is clearly no stranger to the heritage of Russian choral music, but this substantial and often virtuoso work draws from a much wider harmonic palette, and the fact that the words are set in English, and the music intended for Tenebrae, would seem also to have imparted to the work something of an English sound, to which its dedicatees respond with passion. Impressive and moving, and beautifully captured.
All Music Guide, 2010
The subtitle of Russian-British composer Alexander Levine’s Prayers for Mankind is "A Symphony of Prayers of Father Alexander Men." In six contrasting movements lasting well over an hour, the designation of symphony is not inappropriate, even though the scoring is for a cappella chorus. The texts are taken from devotional writings by Father Alexander Men, an Orthodox priest, theologian, and biblical scholar who was assassinated in 1990 and has come to be revered as a saint. They are intensely, almost excruciatingly intimate prayers, the majority written as personal reflections, with only two sections possibly intended for public, collective use. Hearing such private self-exposure declaimed grandly and dramatically by a choral group almost comes across as unseemly, and can cause the kind of squirminess one might feel when overhearing a too- intimate conversation. This might be an issue for English speakers because Levine uses a translation of the texts rather than the original Russian.
Levine uses the warm, lushly chromatic harmonic language typical of much late 20th and 21st century choral music, but it is also easy to hear the influence of Orthodox liturgical chant. It’s an immensely appealing choral sound. The music seems so text-driven and so much of the text uses litany-like repetitive patterns that a coherent sense of musical development is often difficult to discern. That may not be a problem for listeners who are able to meditatively drift from moment to moment, but others looking for more of a sense of purposeful direction may be unconvinced by the meandering quality of much of the music.
The mixed choir, Tenebrae, expertly led by Nigel Short, delivers the kind of exceptionally disciplined and spirited performance for which it is rightly renowned. The burnished warmth of the choral blend and the absolute clarity and purity of the sound continue to amaze. The album is beautifully engineered, with crystalline sound that has just the right presence and ambience for this contemplative piece.
The CD Prayers for Mankind, subtitled "A Symphony of Prayers of Father Alexander Men," celebrates the life and writings of Father Alexander Men, a Russian Orthodox priest who was brutally murdered in 1990 on his way to Sunday morning Liturgy. A remarkable priest, writer, teacher, and evangelizer, whose activity still fell mostly within the years of Communist suppression of the Orthodox faith, he has come to be regarded by many as a saint and martyr.
Through his eloquent preaching and writing, Fr. Alexander brought many to the Orthodox faith and thus gained his share of enemies, even unto his death. Out of selected prayers and sermons by Father Men translated into English, Russian composer Alexander Levine fashions a remarkable six-movement "choral symphony" for unaccompanied voices, which is given its premier recording on this CD. The music is quite "modern," not at all reminiscent of Orthodox liturgical music, but dissonance is tempered with passages of euphonious beauty…
Overall, the music is powerfully inspired by and reflective of the beauty and profound meaning of the words. The professional English chamber choir Tenebrae negotiates the musical challenges of the score with tremendous confidence, skill, and bravura…
Be that as it may, this is a major new 21st-century Orthodox-Christian-inspired choral work that is quite powerful and bears repeated hearing and performance, just as the words (published in English and Russian in the booklet) bear repeated reading and contemplation. This CD will be enjoyed by all lovers of contemporary choral music and fine choral singing.
Classic FM Magazine
The Music Composer Alexander Levine’s setting for a capella choir of six prayers by Russian priest Father Alexander Men ensures that the unsolved crime of his axe-murder in 1990 remains in the public eye. The ‘symphony’ has six movements, of which Humility and Gift of Wisdom and Love are scherzos, and I Love You Lord is the adagio heart. The music is a cross between Orthodox chant and Whitacre dissonance, hovering around a somewhat wearing tonal centre of D throughout. The English prayer texts are banal.
The Performance Nigel Short’s choir Tenebrae performs the gargantuan work with untiring skill. His four fruity basses sound authentically Russian on the ubiquitous pedal notes. The singers’ self-reproach for the crisply enunciated, rhythmically expressed words’ ‘narrow- minded ness’ has the quiet menace of the confessional. The slow movement I Love You Lord has blemishless serenity. The ecstatic forte pleas remain powerful to the end and the balance in the harsher discords shows no bias as they hang unresolved. The enunciation of poor texts is sadly all too clear.
The Verdict The choir Tenebrae is unbeatable but the music, despite some genius flashes, is hard going and the lyrics cliche-ridden. Tenebrae is current master of the Russian sound. Try their Rachmaninov Vespers, also on Signum (SIGCD 054).
Musicweb-International, April 2011
Father Alexander Men (1935-1990) was a theologian, scholar, writer and priest of the Russian Orthodox Church. A leading figure in the religious revival in post- Soviet Russia, he was assassinated in 1990.
The Russian-born composer, Alexander Levine, who has lived in London since the early 1990s, has selected six of Father Men’s prayers and set them powerfully and prayerfully for a cappella chorus. He describes Men’s prayers as “a gem in the spiritual treasury of Mankind” and says of them: “contemporary in their language and in the problems they give voice to …[they] express in essence the expectations of every human being living on Earth.” Non-believers might take issue with that last sentiment but the words of these prayers are wonderfully expressive and make a strong impact simply as words. The addition of Levine’s marvellous, deeply-felt music enhances their expressive power still further. I presume this is a fairly recent work but, despite quite a bit of searching, including on the composer’s own website, I’ve been unable to find the date of composition.
I’m not sure if the work was written to be sung in English or in Russian but Tenebrae’s performance is given in English and though the texts are printed in full their diction is so good that most of the words can be followed without recourse to the booklet. However, as Men’s prayers are quite detailed and, in most cases, quite lengthy, it’s advisable to follow the texts in order fully to appreciate them.
The music, which is in no way a pastiche of the traditional Orthodox style, is very impressive. Much of it is slow in tempo, though the basic pulse of both movements III and V is fast and urgent. Whether the pace is slow or fast, loud or soft, there is at all times a real intensity to the music. The harmonies are often searching – as, for example, in Movement II, ‘A Prayer for Unity’ – and though the music is completely tonal, dissonance is used to telling effect.
Movement IV, ‘I Love You, Lord’ is the longest of the movements heard up to that point yet its text is, by some distance, the briefest – a mere four lines. This is one of the most interior of the movements – Levine refers to the “privacy” of the prayer – and the music is slow, hushed, devotional and contemplative. At many points in the score as a whole I find Levine’s music daring and in this section his daring finds expression in the slow, still quietness of his writing. His intentions are realised superbly by Tenebrae.
But I think that Levine surpasses even the achievement of ‘I Love You, Lord’ in the last movement, ‘A Prayer for the Disciples of Christ’. This is much the longest movement, accounting for nearly a third of the work’s entire duration. After a fervent affirmation the music relapses into a predominantly slow pace and it becomes deeply reflective in tone. From 11:38 onwards, and starting with the words “Jesus Christ, Son of God, who has revealed for us the Heavenly Father”, the music is as serene and beautiful as any we have heard in the preceding fifty- odd minutes. A number of soloists – all of them excellent, especially baritone Stephen Kennedy – intone the words of the prayer against a softly luminous choral background. These last ten minutes or so of the work, which eventually dies away as a mere sliver of sound, possess a rare degree of spirituality and Levine – and Father Men – communicate with the listener at a very deep level. I found this passage especially moving.
In fact the whole work is very moving. Superbly and imaginatively written for the voices, it must make huge demands on the singers – not least in terms of concentration. Nigel Short and his expert choir meet all the challenges head- on and surmount them. The singing is superb from start to finish and even the most complex passages are delivered with great clarity. The performance has a burning conviction that is wholly appropriate to the subject matter. Engineer Mike Hatch has captured the performance in clear yet atmospheric sound.
This is a notable new choral work and it’s impossible to imagine that it could have been served better than by Tenebrae. Both this composition and the performance it receives are significant achievements.