International Record Review

“…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.” May 2013

 

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 LiturBY is the first music by Levine to have coine 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 sear ch 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 r ewards. 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.

William Hedley