chesnokov sacred choral naxos

Pavel Chesnokov (1877-1944)
Cherubic Hymn, Op 7 No 1 (1897)
Spaseniye sodelal (‘Salvation is created’), Op 25 No 5 (1909-10)
Angel vopiyashe (‘The Angel cried out’), Op 22 No 18 (1909)
O Tebe raduyetsia (‘All of creation rejoices’), Op 15 No 11 (1911)
All-Night Vigil, Op 44 (1912)
Jessica Kinney (soprano); Natalie Manning (contralto); Tom Butler (baritone)
St John’s Voices
Cambridge University Chamber Choir/Graham Walker
rec. 2022, St John’s College Chapel, Cambridge
Russian texts, transliterations & English translations included
Naxos 8.574496 [66]

St John’s Voices (SJV) is an ensemble which is very distinct from the long-established St John’s College, Cambridge Choir. SJV was formed in 2013 as a voluntary choir. This is, I understand, their second disc for Naxos. Previously, they released a disc of music by William Mathas, which we don’t seem to have reviewed (8.574162). Sadly, for reasons that I’ll come to shortly, this second CD could well be their last.

SJV is an adult SATB ensemble, open to students at St John’s College and also to singers from other colleges of Cambridge University and, indeed, to non-students. SJV sings the service of Evensong each Monday during term time (giving the Chapel choir a day off) and also pursues its own independent schedule of concerts. A crucial difference between the two choirs at St John’s is the composition of the two choirs. In recent years the main Chapel Choir has started to include female altos and girl choristers in its ranks – an important and welcome move – but SJV has young adult sopranos on its top line. So, SJV offers the only opportunity for students at St John’s who are sopranos to sing in the college chapel.

For the present disc, SJV has joined forces with Cambridge University Chamber Choir. That ensemble has been around for a little longer, I believe, and its core membership is sixteen singers. Since no choir listings are included in the booklet, I don’t know how big the combined choir is, but judging by the photo of SJV I’d guess that they have about 30 members; so, probably there’s a group of around 50 taking part in this recording. Inevitably, this ensemble of student singers can’t match the sonorities of a Slavic adult choir, especially when one considers the bass section – though these Cambridge basses give a good account of themselves. However, I’d urge you not to dismiss this disc on that account; there’s very accomplished singing to enjoy here, as well as wonderful music. In any event, I firmly believe that Orthodox music should not be the preserve solely of Slavic choirs – though I relish the wonderful sound that such ensembles can produce; Western choirs have their part to play in performing this music..          

I first sat up and took notice of the liturgical music of Pavel Chesnokov in 2018 when I reviewed the remarkable disc ‘Teach Me Thy Statutes’ by the PaTRAM Institute Male Choir. That disc was subsequently selected as MusicWeb’s Recording of the Year for 2018.  This new disc from Naxos is not strictly comparable. In the first place, the combined Cambridge choirs are SATB whereas the PaTRAM Institute recording features an all-male ensemble. Furthermore, the contents of the respective discs are different. Naxos offer us the complete All-Night Vigil, whereas the PaTRAM choir sang five selected movements from the work. Of the four shorter pieces that make up the rest of the Naxos programme, only Spaseniye sodelal is common to both discs.

The four short pieces are all well done by Graham Walker’s combined choir. I greatly enjoyed Spaseniye sodelal (‘Salvation is created’); it’s a gorgeous piece and it’s sung very expressively. Angel vopiyashe (‘The Angel cried out’)is very interesting. Chesnokov allocates the words of the Angel to a solo soprano. The soloist, Jessica Kinney is very impressive. As Jonathan Midgley observes in his notes, Chesnokov adopts a “more dramatic, emotional, expressive style” in this piece. Much of the music is slow-paced but excellent contrast is provided by a short central section which is much more urgent and which the Cambridge choir delivers with great energy. O Tebe raduyetsia (‘All of creation rejoices’) is mostly hushed and subdued, though Chesnokov adds “spice” to the music through a judicious sprinkling of chromatic harmony. I admired the control with which the choir sings the long lines in this piece.

Jonathan Midgley tells us that Chesnokov composed two All-Night Vigil settings. The first, designated Op 21, was published in around 1909 and Midgley describes it as an “exhaustive resource”. He followed this in 1912 with his Op 44; ten new pieces, published as The Principal Motets of the All-Night Vigil. Most, but not all, of these settings utilised traditional Orthodox chants. In discussing these pieces I’ll use their English titles for ease of reference

The second of the pieces, ‘Blessed is the Man’ has a prominent part for a baritone soloist; he declaims the text with the choir providing a lovely accompanying cushion of sound. Here, the soloist is Tom Butler. He does well; his voice is firm and clear and I liked the very slight edge he puts on his tone. Much of this piece is quite restrained. The following piece, ‘Gladsome light’ is not chant-based. Chesnokov’s melodic inspiration is very well suited to the text, nowhere more so than at the words ‘Now that we have come to the setting of the sun’. Chesnokov’s setting of the ‘Nunc dimittis’ may not reach quite the same exalted level as Rachmaninov’s justly famous piece, but even so the Chesnokov features expansive and expressive vocal lines which are beautifully harmonised. It’s a distinguished response to the text and these Cambridge singers give a fine account of it.

Chesnokov’s sixth movement is ‘Resurrectional Troparia – The Angelic Council’. This prominently employs a Znamenny chant. I think Graham Walker paces the piece in an ideal fashion; he keeps the music on the move and allows the chant to flow. In several of the verses Chesnokov gives the first two lines to the sopranos and altos before the full choir joins in; this is a most effective device. The penultimate movement is also the longest: the Great Doxology. This uses a Kyivan chant. The performance is pleasingly sonorous and, once again, Walker ensures that the chant flows. Towards the end, at the words ‘Holy God, Holy Mighty’, Chesnokov introduces an alto soloist. Natalie Manning is billed as a contralto and she has the fullness of tone that the music needs but her voice also has clarity; I liked her contribution. The All-Night Vigil concludes with ‘To Thee, the victorious Leader’. Chesnokov sets these words in a measured, prayerful fashion; I like that approach.

I’m really glad I’ve had the opportunity to hear Chesnokov’s Op 44 in full. It contains a great deal of beautiful and impressive music. The present performance is very satisfying. True, we’re not listening to a sonorous Slavic choir, complete with cavernous basses. However, I think Walker and his singers do a fine job; there’s evident commitment in the singing. The choir’s sound is fresh and attractive; textures are clear and I found it quite easy to follow the transliterated text. I also admired the dynamic range of the choir which enables them to do full justice to Chesnokov’s often dramatic use of dynamic contrast. No Russian language coach is credited but I strongly suspect the choir had the benefit of some language coaching. I’ve recently had an experience of singing in Russian myself and I can appreciate how challenging the language can be. To my ears, the choir’s Russian sounds very convincing.

The technical side of this release is a success, too. Producer Jeremy Hayes and engineer Ben Connellan have done a fine job, using the warm resonance of the acoustic of the St John’s College Chapel to excellent effect and never at the expense of clarity. Whether I listened through loudspeakers or headphones I got excellent results, though I found that using my headphones was particularly satisfying.

As for the documentation, Jonathan Midgley’s notes are very useful, not least in giving collectors who may know little about this composer a succinct but valuable background. Just recently, I reviewed a recording, issued on another label, of Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil and my enjoyment was marred because the booklet only included the Cyrillic Russian text and an English translation. Full marks, therefore, to Naxos for providing a transliterated text as well.

At the start of this review, I mentioned that this may be the last we’ll hear of SJV on disc. Just as I was beginning my appraisal of this disc, news broke that the authorities at St John’s College have taken the decision to abolish SJV when the current academic year ends in June 2024. Presumably, day-to-day finance has played a part in the College’s decision (though I suspect they have substantial financial reserves) but I’ve also read that they wish to make the College Chapel available for other uses on Mondays. It seems a great pity to bring to an abrupt end a choir that offers opportunities to young singers in a way that the College’s renowned Chapel Choir does not – and in the case of adult female sopranos, cannot – offer. A powerfully argued letter has been sent to the College authorities, asking for the decision to be reversed. It has been signed by an impressively large number of eminent musicians and supporters of the choir and it is to be hoped that, as happened with the BBC Singers, the College will reflect and find a way to retain SJV as an integral part of St John’s musical life.

The very impressive partnership between St John’s Voices and the Cambridge University Chamber Choir on this disc demonstrates what will be lost, in terms of excellence and musical enterprise if SJV is disbanded.

John Quinn


Since submitting this review, I’ve read that Graham Walker and SJV have very recently completed sessions for a third CD. The disc will include music by Nikolai Golovanov and Rachmaninov

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