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Die Göttliche Liturgie
21 Jan 2007

Die Göttliche Liturgie

Serge Jaroff and his Don Cossacks Choir were for many decades legendary performers of Russian choral music, ranging from the liturgical works of Orthodoxy to beloved regional folk melodies.

Die Göttliche Liturgie

Don Kosaken Solisten; Wanja Hlibka, Director

KuK Verlagsanstalt LC 11277 [CD]

$17.99  Click to buy

Formed in an interment camp in 1921, the choir, under the sole leadership of Jaroff, persisted until 1979. With an institution of such longevity and popularity it is not surprising that someone would pick up the torch and seek to maintain the tradition. Thus, Wanja Hlibka and George Tymezenko, soloists under Jaroff, formed a “successor group,” the Don Cossacks Soloists in 1991. This present recording of liturgical music preserves a live concert given by the Don Cossacks Soloists in 2000 at Maulbronn Monastery, a German Cistercian monastery from the twelfth into the sixteenth century, with a long history as a school following that.

There is certainly much here to like. The full-throated, vibrant singing can be thrilling in its strength, while less exuberant sections remain haunting in their ponderous weight and gravity. And the recitational chanting is, like an aural whiff of incense, powerfully, and sometimes poignantly, evocative of the dynamics of the liturgy. Compellingly, too, the choir favors a wide range of volume, and one is left to ponder whether it is the fullness of sound or the hush of pianissimo that creates the most lasting impression.

That said, other aspects are less favorable. One need not impose a Western notion of blend in order to question balance in the ensemble. Outer voices, the profound basses and high tenors, tend to predominate, leaving the middle range wanting more presence and heft. Additionally, the program itself, heard at full length as a “concert,” will be too narrowly drawn for some tastes, I suspect, for the works, while often beautiful examples of liturgical art, can seem less engaging when removed from that rich context and heard as a long succession of concert works.

Not many of the works will be familiar to western listeners. Gretschaninow’s setting of the Creed is perhaps an exception, as is surely the Kiev melody (“Holy God”) that Tschaikowsky so movingly borrows in the 1812 Overture. As we know it best “in quotation,” it is particularly rewarding to hear it here shorn of the inverted commas, sung with fluency of style, presence, and native attachment. And it is these qualities that pervade the recording as a whole, commendably so.

Steven Plank

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