I first encountered the music of Alexander Levine a couple of years ago when Tenebrae recorded his Prayers for Mankind. A Symphony of Prayers of Father Alexander Men (2007-08). I was impressed by the music and by the fine performance it received (review) so I welcomed the chance to hear Tenebrae in another of his works for a cappella choir.
There is a link between this present work and thePrayers for Mankind. The texts for Prayers for Mankindwere a series of prayers by the influential Russian Orthodox priest, Fr. Alexander Men (1935-1990) who was, until his assassination in 1990 a leading figure in the religious revival in post-Soviet Russia. It was while visiting the grave near Moscow of Fr. Men, a family friend, in 2005 that Alexander Levine felt impelled to compose a musical setting of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Levine describes the process that led him to compose the music in a booklet note. I was interested to read that the finished score benefited from the patronage of Valery Gergiev to whom Levine showed the score in 2007. Gergiev arranged forthe work to be performed by the Mariinsky Opera Choir at his Easter Festival in 2008 and it was given at four consecutive Festivals between 2008 and 2011.
The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is one of the key Eucharistic liturgies of the Orthodox Church; it is used on most weekdays and dates back, I believe, to the fifth century. Levine’s musical setting is divided into 22 separate movements, all of which are quite short – in this performance the majority last for between three and five minutes and the longest takes 6:20.
The music is recognisably founded on and indebted to the musical traditions of the Orthodox Church yet, as you would expect, Levine has not slavishly followed that tradition and produced a clone of earlier settings. That much is obvious right at the start when, after the Deacon’s incantation the choir sings “Amin”. However, this word is not set to the traditional two sonorous block chords. Rather, the word floats around on intertwining thematic ribbons before finally coming to rest on two soft block chords. In other words, Levine has built on the Orthodox tradition but, very rightly, he’s given it a contemporary slant and has brought his own musical experiences and ideas to bear. Nor has he been afraid to bring in musical influences from outside the Orthodox mainstream. I think it’s worth quoting from his note on the piece. He says this:-
“I perceived the ethical values of liturgical prayers as being ecumenical (my italics) in their essence …. That is why the music of this Liturgy highlights different musical approaches found in Christian cultures across history from Greek or Byzantine chant, to medieval polyphony. The pervading influence of renaissance counterpoint and Byzantine chant alongside a poly-chord texture features prominently in this liturgy.”
Much of the music is very beautiful. I can easily see two or three of the movements having the potential to become popular as free-standing pieces as has happened to ‘Bogoroditsye Devo’ from Rachmaninov’s All Night Vigil. In this category I would place the intense, very beautiful First Antiphon (Movement II); the Third Antiphon (Movement V), a wonderful setting of The Beatitudes in which the music is sometimes assertive and sometimes radiant; and the lovely Hymn to the Virgin (Movement XVI), which features light, transparent musical textures, as befits the feminine subject.
I found that one very soon falls under the spell of Levine’s music. In my case this had happened well before the end of the first movement, Introduction and Great Litany, in which there are some ravishing choral textures. In this movement, which is the longest, much of the music is slow and prayerful, especially when the words ‘Lord, have mercy’ are being sung, but eventually the choir’s prayer becomes more urgent in tone. This is a characteristic that we will encounter quite often as the work unfolds: on many occasions Levine doesn’t maintain the same tempo or mood for an entire movement; rather he varies his music in urgency as the words demand. So, for example, the third movement, Second Antiphon, starts with male voices and at quite a steady pace. Gradually, the music becomes more urgent in tone, especially as female voices are added to the vocal mix. We find that both the pace of the music picks up and that the tessitura rises ever higher as the chorus of praise intensifies.
Much of the music is slow or moderate in tempo, as one might expect, but there are also many fervent, animated passages. The Trisagion Hymn (Movement VII), for example, is, for the most part, strongly rhythmical, founded on a repeated figure sung by the basses. The effect is very exciting. Immediately afterwards, however, comes the highly contrasting Litany of Fervent Supplication. Here Levine constructs 3:32 of very beautiful, contemplative music using just three words of text.
Each individual movement contains rewarding and lovely music yet the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I find that the work’s greatest effect is cumulative and it’s fitting that the final movement, ‘Blessed be the Name of the Lord’, ends in a blaze of affirmation.
Levine’s Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is one of those works which, when you hear it, you feel the composer had to write – and that’s without reading his note, which confirms that this is indeed the case. It strikes me as a work of deep conviction and sincerity; a piece, in short, that comes from the heart. The music is wonderfully varied, inventive, responsive to the words and accessible to the listener. It’s a work that, I should imagine, poses many technical challenges for the singers yet it is superbly imagined for voices – the textures are wonderful and often ravish the ear. In Nigel Short and Tenebrae the music has the best possible advocates. The singing is immaculate and burns with conviction. It is, quite simply, superb. Producer Nicholas Parker and Engineer Mike Hatch have recorded the performance with great sympathy, producing sound that is clear yet also atmospheric.
Anyone interested in the music of the Orthodox Church should hear this beautiful and imaginative score which respects and is built on the tradition of Orthodox music yet at the same time takes that tradition in a new and exciting direction. The disc is equally of interest to collectors who appreciate eloquent and beautifully written modern choral music.
Tenebrae have already recorded an earlier work by the Moscow-bom composer Alexander Levine, Prayersf or Mankind (1/11), on texts by the martyr priest Alexander Men. This setting of the Liturgy of StJohn Chrysostom – the standard form of the Eucharistic service in the Byzantine rite – was inspired by a visit to Men’s grave. It is shot through by the same passionate urgency and by the same fluency in writing for choral ensemble, at once contemporary and connected with the great Russian choral tradition of the past. Levine himself invokes both Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov in his booklet-notes, and not without reason. The fact that the work’s text is in Slavonic, rather than the English of Prayers, is indicative of the way language shapes music; Levine’s ringing chordal writing and the subtle weighting towards the lower voices (including the subterranean bass) is a very direct response to the words of the Liturgy.
But is it a genuinely liturgical work? That is a difficult question to answer. In principle, there is no reason why it could not be used in a liturgical celebration (the priest’s petitions are not sung here except for the opening blessing), but it is very definitely an elaborate kind of music and requires a very high standard of performance. Tenebrae are the choir for the job: the sound, while perfectly blended, is also, paradoxically, clearly built from individual timbres, like a richly veined marble. It is surely just what the composer desired for this luminous music.
Tenebrae and Nigel Short have already recorded a major choral work by the Russian composer Alexander Levine, his Prayers for Mankind of 2008, also released on Signum. Since he settled in Britain in 1992, Levine has been active as a composer for the theatre, and his catalogue of independent works is now growing steadily. Another choral work was premiered in the United States in March of this year, for example, and now there is this important recording which coincides with the publication of the score by Peters Edition.
I have not heard Prayers for Mankind and, indeed, The Divine Liturgy is the first music by Levine to have come my way. It was completed in 2006 and was performed in the composer’s native land before being taken up by Tenebrae. The booklet contains a long essay by the composer in which he outlines the inspiration and thinking behind the work, which came to represent an important emotional and spiritual experience for him. He also provides some commentary on the music itself, though this is hardly necessary, as it is most accessible, speaking, as it were, directly to the listener. Following the texts does help, however, and these are also provided, alongside an English translation.
The composer also writes of how he was conscious, throughout the gestation and composition of the work, of the unaccompanied choral works of two great Russian predecessors, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov. Potential listeners will know what to expect when I say that the atmosphere of the work, indeed its very sound, is not so far removed from the models of those two great composers. Levine evokes how he consciously avoided ‘skilfully setting words to music’ in favour of a ‘relentless search for mysterious revelations of the ancient texts …’. The result is a work that lasts nearly 80 minutes, demanding a fair level of concentration and application from the listener, and this in spite of the fact that the musical language is only intermittently, and then barely, more advanced than Rachmaninov’s masterpiece. You have to wait until the seventh of the 22 short movements before anything approaching fast music appears, where its seven-in-a-bar metre is a sign that this is, after all, a contemporary work.
Overall, though, and happily, given the duration of the work, there is rather more variety and contrast than in either the Tchaikovsky or the Rachmaninov models. As early as the second movement, for example, the music rises to a passionate climax at the words ‘Glory be to the Father’, and the setting of the ‘Creed’ – the passage where many a composer’s inspiration has tended to cool – provokes, from Levine, perhaps the most varied writing of the whole work. Other high spots include the ‘Sanctus’ setting, whose cries of ‘Hosanna’ are positively ecstatic, and the explosion of joy that occurs at the end of the ‘Communion’. Whilst sympathizing with the composer’s aims – the liturgical nature of the work is of prime importance, rather than its success as a concert work – I do feel that the more varied writing of the second half brings the listener greater rewards. It also renders the close of the work, a passage of fervent acclamation and affirmation, all the more inevitable and effective.
There are many very lovely sounds throughout this work, and those who appreciate Orthodox church music will find much to enjoy here. It makes ideal late-night listening, but it will also repay close study. The performance is spectacularly successful. Short paces the score superbly and his singers are with him at every turn. They even make a creditable stab at sounding Russian, with some magnificently dark basses throughout, and any choral conductor will covet those singers, not named in the booklet, who undertake the very few solo passages. The sound of this magnificent choir is perfectly captured in a tranquil church acoustic.
Alexander Levine’s Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom was written in 2006, in memory of his friend Father Alexander Men, the Russian Orthodox priest who became an influential spiritual leader and architect of religious renewal in Russia at the end of the Soviet period. The work was premiered in Russia in 2008 ,but the Mariinsky Opera Choir at the Easter Festival in Moscow. The work received its UK premiere earlier this month at the launch of this CD, with Tenebrae directed by Nigel Short (see our review of the concert on this blog).
Alexander Levine (born 1955) studied at the Gnessin Music Academy in Russia, then moved to the UK in 1992 where he studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama with Gary Carpenter and Simon Bainbridge. The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom sets the Russian Orthodox liturgy familiar from the settings by Tchakovsky and Rachmaninov. Like them, Levine uses just an unaccompanied choir (instruments are forbidden in liturgical music in the Russian Orthodox Church), but he has given some of the deacons and the priests part to the choir itself.
The CD booklet described how Levine’s approach to the writing of the work was extremely spiritual. But as with any music, the success of the piece is in how the listener perceives it: good intentions are not enough.
The work clearly lives in the same musical world as Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov’s settings of the liturgy, in a the way that settings of the Roman Catholic Mass do not necessarily share the same musical ethos (just consider say RVW and James MacMillan’s settings).
Levine uses a similar mixture of chant, homophony and lively canonic passages with a strong emphasis on drones. But mixed in with this is a harmonic language which incorporates the sort of close harmony chords beloved of Eric Whitacre and Morten Lauridsen. Levine uses these to create a radiance which is entirely apposite to the work.
There is another interesting influence that is sometimes hinted at, that of Alfred Schnittke. Not that Levine’s writing attempts to approach the complexity of Schnittke’s, but Schnittke’s handling of chant in works like the Choral Concerto is echoed distantly in Levine’s setting.
For those not completely familiar with the Russian Orthodox Liturgy, Levine sets the different movements in an admirably varied and highly evocative manner. This is a work which draws us in, whatever your religious persuasion.
The performance by Tenebrae under conductor Nigel Short is extremely fine indeed. The choir numbers just 20 singers, but makes a rich firm sound. Their tuning and placement of the notes in Levine’s closely harmonised writing is nothing short of superb. This is singing of a very high order. They bring a quiet beauty of tone to the more reflective moments, which carries over into other parts of the work and their contribution to the sheer radiance of the performance is significant.
The sound quality of the choir is still decidedly English, though they bring a nice intensity to the piece. I have to confess that I am highly curious as to what a performance by a Russian choir would be like?
Ultimately the work does succeed, Levine manages to sustain an intensity of feeling and radiance which comes over superbly in this performance.