Bortniansky: I Cried Out To The Lord / Ensemble Cherubim

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BORTNIANSKY Cherubic Hymn No. 7. Choral Concertos: Nos. 1, 6, 9, 15, 18, 21, 27, 32. How Glorious is our Lord in Zion Marika Kuzma, cond; Ens Cherubim NAXOS 8.573109 (63:04 Text and Translation)

We all know that Russian music began with Glinka, right? Well no, actually it didn’t, especially if one considers the rich tradition of a cappella liturgical music in the Russian Orthodox Church. From the late 17th century onward, these compositions are often credited to individual composers, such as Nikolai Diletsky (1630–1690), Vasily Titov (1650–1715), Maksim Berezovsky (1745–1777), Stepan Degtiarev (1766–1813), and Artemy Vedel (1767–1806). Dmitry Bortniansky (1751–1825) was one of the consummate practitioners of this art, but in addition to church music he wrote operas and instrumental works. All of the composers mentioned were strongly influenced by European musical styles, and none more so than Bortniansky. Of Ukrainian birth, he was recruited into the Imperial Court Chapel Choir in St. Petersburg at the age of seven. Because of his outstanding abilities, he was eventually sent to Italy to study, spent 10 years there, and had several of his operas produced in Italian theaters. Upon his return to Russia in 1779 he achieved great success as a composer and choral director and in 1796 was appointed director of the Imperial Court Chapel.

There have been a good many recordings of Bortniansky’s music, but this one is claimed to be “the first to restore authentic early 19th-century Church Slavonic pronunciation and reintroduce fine details found in archival sources.” Not having been present in Russia during the early 19th century, I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the pronunciation, and I would be curious to know on what basis it was established. The notes by conductor and Bortniansky scholar Marika Kuzma shed little light on this issue, except to remark that the orthography in the printed Cyrillic texts “intentionally includes archaic letters to signal an earlier, St. Petersburg pronunciation of Church Slavonic that differs from current Russian or Ukrainian practice.” The “archaic” letters mentioned were eliminated from Russian in the post-revolutionary orthographic reform, which as far as I know did not affect pronunciation. The eliminated letters were simply considered redundant. The claim to historical authenticity is somewhat undermined by the presence in the choir of women’s voices, which traditionally were not used in Orthodox Church music. I must acknowledge, however, that many other recordings of such material also employ a mixed chorus. In any case, Kuzma’s credentials as a choral director, musicologist, and Bortniansky expert are strong, and one can have some confidence in the quality of her research on issues relating to this composer. Above all, it is the quality of the music and the performances that is important, and here Kuzma’s recording is on very firm ground.

A notable feature of these performances is their transparency, contrasting with the massive, blended choral sound favored by other recordings of similar material. This transparency is very beneficial to Bortniansky’s contrapuntal textures and antiphonal effects, and achieving it is clearly one of Kuzma’s major objectives. In the notes, she announces her intention to avoid the “rich, legato choral style of traditional Russian choirs,” which creates “a wash of sound that blurs the fine detail indicated in Bortniansky’s scores.” In Cherubic Hymn No. 7, which opens the program and is probably the composer’s best-known work, the excellent intonation of the Ensemble Cherubim is also immediately apparent. Kuzma’s delivery is a bit quicker but also more relaxed and serene than the performance by the Lege Artis Chamber Choir of St. Petersburg (Sony). Another hymn, Kol’ slaven nash Gospod v Sione (How Glorious is Our Lord in Zion), brings the disc to a tranquil conclusion. Its text, drawn from a poem by Mikhail Kheraskov (1733–1807), is in Russian rather than Church Slavonic, unlike the rest of the works on the disc.

Between the two hymns, the bulk of the disc is devoted to eight of Bortniansky’s 35 sacred concertos for single chorus (he also wrote some for double chorus). The concertos are in three or four short movements and set a variety of religious texts, drawn mostly from the Psalms. Slow movements tend to alternate with faster ones, the latter being highly contrapuntal in character. The emotions expressed in these works run the gamut from deepest despair and mourning to joyous celebration. In addition to the qualities of transparency, textural detail, and precise intonation previously mentioned, Kuzma’s performances are characterized by intensity, elasticity, and variety in tempo and dynamics. If you think an hour of unaccompanied choral music can become monotonous, think again. That is not the case here.

Although a substantial number of discs that include some music by Bortniansky are available, recordings devoted exclusively to his choral music are few, and the selection of concertos assembled by Kuzma cannot currently be replicated on CD. The main competition for this release comes from the efforts of Valery Polyansky, who recorded all 35 concertos with the Russian State Symphonic Capella for Chandos on five discs. The first volume of his series, which contains the first nine concertos and three of those included by Kuzma, is currently available only as an MP3 download. Each of the remaining Chandos discs includes no more than one or two of the works recorded by Kuzma. Polyansky also recorded some of the concertos earlier for Melodiya, first with the Moscow Conservatory Chamber Choir and later with the USSR Ministry of Culture Chamber Choir. These earlier recordings appear to be unavailable at present. The contrast between Polyansky’s approach and that of Kuzma is consistent with her own description of the differences between the “traditional Russian choral sound” and what she seeks to achieve. It would be difficult to question Polyansky’s commitment and authority in this repertoire, or the sonorous majesty of his Chandos recordings, but where I’ve been able to make direct comparisons (in Nos. 1, 6, 9, 18, and 21), I find myself often preferring Kuzma, because of clearer textures, livelier tempos (especially in the slow movements), and more pointed rhythm. It is also noteworthy that where Polyansky relies constantly on a massed chorus, Kuzma frequently assigns lines to individual singers or a small contingent, which makes for a greater variety of texture. The differences in interpretation are perhaps most obvious in the opening movement of Concerto No. 21 (“He that dwelleth in the help of the Most High”), where Polyansky’s marmoreal pace nearly doubles Kuzma’s timing (4:31 vs. 2:22), and Kuzma’s chamber-like texture contrasts strikingly with the dark mass of Polyansky’s chorus. Here one must acknowledge the greater sense of other-worldly mystery achieved by Polyansky, as well as the more powerful presence of bass voices in his rendition. Both these varieties of interpretation have their place.

The sound of this recording is very clean, clear, and well focused, free of the wooliness that sometimes afflicts choral recordings. Polyansky’s Chandos discs, by contrast, are recorded in a much more reverberant environment. The Church Slavonic and Russian texts are offered in Cyrillic, along with English translations, but no transliteration is provided, which is great for those with knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet, but those without it are at a disadvantage.

The fine performances on this disc offer a good introduction to and sampling of Bortniansky’s choral music. I strongly recommend this excellent disc to anyone interested specifically in this composer or in Russian music before Glinka.

FANFARE: Daniel Morrison

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8573109

  • UPC: 747313310975

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Dimitri Bortniansky

  • Conductor: Marika Kuzma

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Ensemble Cherubim