The Fifth Element #58

February is traditionally the month for music features, so I start this column with some recordings you really should hear. This year I had a greater-than-usual number of worthy candidates for "Records To Die For." Which discs got named as R2D4s and which got column coverage was, to quote the Iron Duke, a near-run thing.

Alexander Tikhonovich Gretchaninov (1864–1956), fascinating in his own right, is as well a prime subject for a game of historical "what might have been." A late bloomer as far as composers go, he claimed not to have set eyes on a piano before he was 14. He had started medical school, but against his parents' wishes switched to the Moscow Conservatory, where his teachers included Taneyev and Arensky. He later moved to St. Petersburg, where Rimsky-Korsakov became his main influence, as well as a friend and important benefactor.

By the early years of the 20th century, Gretchaninov was recognized as an important Russian composer. His pre-Revolutionary output includes two symphonies (the first premiered by Rimsky-Korsakov), three string quartets, and concertos, operas, and piano and chamber music. Not incidentally, religious music for the Orthodox Church was also an abiding interest of Gretchaninov's. Indeed, his setting of the Old Slavonic hymn text "Blazhen muzh" in his All-Night Vigil predates by three years Rachmaninoff's setting of the same text in his own All-Night Vigil. In 1910, the Czar awarded Gretchaninov an annual subsidy. I'm not claiming that Gretchaninov had the world on a string, but I think it fair to assume that, as the 1910s began, things must have looked pretty good.

As we all know, history had other plans. By 1918, Gretchaninov's annual stipend was no longer a sure thing, and the market for Orthodox music was heading south—or, at least, west. Gretchaninov left Russia, eventually settling in the US, where he became a citizen and lived to a ripe old age. However, unlike his younger contemporary Rachmaninoff, Gretchaninov seemed unable to earn a living as a concert artist, and perhaps that is the principal reason that Rachmaninoff's works are in the standard repertory and Gretchaninov's are obscure.

What did the disruption of Gretchaninov's career cause us to miss out on? Keep in mind that when you play "what might have been," there are no wrong answers, if only because there are no right ones. I am tantalized by the possibility that Gretchaninov could have put Russian music on a slightly different and perhaps more fruitful path—one that would integrate the harmonic color and subtlety of expression of musical Impressionism into the tradition exemplified by Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov.

That, at least, is what I take away from Gretchaninov's Passion Week, remarkably well performed by the combined forces of the Phoenix Bach Choir and the Kansas City Chorale under their director, Charles Bruffy, on a tremendously well-recorded SACD/CD (Chandos CHSA 5044). The opening track, Behold the Bridegroom, is simply one of the most impressive bits of choral singing I have ever heard. And the recording is near-flabbergasting; the soundstage depth extends into the next zip code. The balance between direct sound and hall ambience appears to be perfect (the venue was Kansas City's Church of the Blessed Sacrament). Vocal ensemble—creamy and seamless, tuning, pitch security, breath control—is otherworldly. The combined choral forces number 52; that 15 of them are basses becomes apparent only minutes in. (I assume that, when Gretchaninov wrote Passion Week, the high parts would have been sung by boys. This recording has women singing the high parts, sweetly and smoothly.) All in all, an amazing recording, either to focus on or to let just wash over you (footnote 1).

Don't be put off by the Holy Week subject matter, if that is of concern to you. First of all, the music is not dramatic and does not use tone-painting; this is not a Bach Passion. Second, the texts are in Church Slavonic, whose roots can be traced back to 10th-century Bulgaria, so the words will float right past you (the album credits include a pronunciation coach, and it shows).

If I can use the phrase in this context without being excommunicated or having to go into rehab, there is one kick-ass piece of orchestral choral music in Old Slavonic, Janácek's Glagolitic Mass. When you get right down to it, this work actually sounds a lot more pagan than Christian: the orchestral music is definitely more likely to make you think of Druids than of Jesuits—well, Druids with a big horn section, that is. Check it out (footnote 2).

Simon Rattle's 1981 recording (1999 remastering, CD, EMI Classics 66995) features blazing brass, crisp choral singing, and a great-sounding organ solo. But I hasten to point out that this recording, excellent as it is, predates both the superb concert hall (1991), designed by Russell Johnson, of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and its magnificent Orgelbau Klais organ (2001). But it still sounds great. As far as I know, you can't really go wrong with any of the available recordings of the Glagolitic Mass; the work has attracted many eminent conductors, among them Karel Ancerl, Riccardo Chailly, Sir Charles Mackerras, and Klaus Tennstedt. So there are at least two pieces in Slavonic worth getting to know, if you don't already know them.

I can also say that Chandos's Gretchaninov SACD is a case where the Recording Academy's voters got it right. No Milli Vanilli this time, or even Christopher Cross. Passion Week snagged for John Newton the 2007 Grammy for Best-Engineered Classical Album; Newton's Soundmirror colleague Blanton Alspaugh produced. Liner notes are, as per the Chandos norm, exemplary, and texts and translations are clearly presented. The disc is available from all the usual sources, but you may wish to support the choral ensembles more directly by purchasing from here or here.

Footnote 1: For the record: John Atkinson's recording of Cantus singing Morten Lauridsen's O Magnum Mysterium, on Comfort & Joy, Volume One (CD, Cantus CTS-1204), remains No.1 on my list of favorite choral recordings. Eric Whitacre's When David Heard, as sung by Polyphony on their album Cloudburst (CD, Hyperion CDA67543), is a close second.

Footnote 2: Janácek goofed in using the word Glagolitic, which pertains to the alphabet employed. He should have used the name of the language itself: Old Slavonic.