Clarion Choir soars in spiritual rarity to open Rachmaninoff 150 year

Sun Jan 01, 2023 at 12:39 pm
Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom was performed by the Clarion Choir Saturday night at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral.

It seems likely that, when the Sergei Rachmaninoff sesquicentennial year of 2023 has run its course, we will find that (with apologies to Joni Mitchell), we looked at Rachmaninoff from both sides now, and we really didn’t know Rachmaninoff at all.

Clarion Choir, jumping the gun by a few hours on New Year’s Eve, introduced a Rachmaninoff relatively few people know with an uplifting performance of his work for unaccompanied chorus, Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, in the visually splendid sanctuary of the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral on East 74th Street. (A repeat performance New Year’s Day will usher in the celebratory year.)

Was the composer of these static, endlessly-circling choral harmonies really the same person who set the standard for rugged athleticism at the piano?  Could the composer who inspired a thousand Hollywood love scenes also liberate one’s spirit from corporeal existence?

It helps to know that Rachmaninoff composed this work as a kind of therapy following a dispiriting tour of America, whose culture, which had been so exciting to Dvořák a few years before, he found grubby and materialistic. Not much of a churchgoer himself, he sought Russian spiritual verities by putting music to this ancient liturgical text, which has served for centuries as the primary order of worship for the Eastern Orthodox Church. “Not for a long time,” he wrote to a friend, “have I written anything with such pleasure.”

A eucharistic service with many similarities to the Roman Mass, the Chrysostom liturgy was typically celebrated with simple chant, not the kind of elaborate settings long associated with the Mass. Rachmaninoff’s idol Tchaikovsky broke that precedent with a choral setting, and the younger composer followed up in 1910 with a version that combined his inclination toward flowing, chant-like melodies and his refined sense of harmonic color.

The result, as presented by the Clarion singers under the assured direction of Steven Fox, managed to be austere and sensuous at the same time. Gorgeously tuned major triad chords resonated among the church’s icons and gold-flecked mosaics. In a prevailing atmosphere of leisurely tempos and deep calm, the occasional forte entrance was like a sudden shaft of light.

Rachmaninoff intended his setting to be used in worship services, and was disappointed when church authorities deemed it “too modern” for that purpose. The work has been performed and recorded as simply a series of choruses, but its liturgical character is realized only with the inclusion of the Deacon (bass-baritone) and the Celebrant (tenor), who engage and instruct the chorus throughout.

Saturday’s performance was blessed with the imposing presence of Fr. Leonid Roschko, an ordained Orthodox Deacon who conveyed the devotional message in rolling phrases, wearing the cap and robe-like vestments of his office. Andrew Fuchs was a clear-voiced presence in the lesser but essential role of the Celebrant.

Vocal display was never the point of this performance, but soprano Nola Richardson did step out of the chorus briefly as a third soloist, adding gleaming highlights to the soft choral sound in the anthem “We Sing to Thee.”

Choral virtuosity takes many forms, and even this resolutely unshowy work demanded much of it, beginning with singing in exquisite tune for an hour and a half without any instrumental accompaniment to provide support or a pitch check. Rachmaninoff began more than one movement with the celestial sound of sopranos breaking the silence softly and high, sometimes in perfectly tuned thirds—a severe test of concentration and technique that these singers passed beautifully.

This listener can’t testify as to the choir’s mastery of Church Slavonic, but their combination of clear diction and seamless legato seemed ideal for this style, and a finely blended sound distinguished every moment from forte exclamations to evanescent pianissimos.

Conductor Fox and his 27 singers made the most of the many ways Rachmaninoff introduced variety in a conflict-free world of mainly slow tempos. The call-and-response of Deacon and choir in the two litanies—including, in this performance, a prayer for the safety of the people of Ukraine—was mirrored by the antiphonal setting of the Beatitudes for double choir in the movement “In Thy Kingdom.”

The aptly-named “Cherubic Hymn” began with one of those high soprano entrances, which blossomed into flowing chords and eventually a rich choral texture grounded by a deep Russian bass line. An exceptional warmth glowed in the harmonies of the tribute to Mary in “It Is Truly Fitting.”  Strong tenor and bass entrances gave a kick to the affirmative text of the Nicene Creed, familiar to many as the Credo of the Latin Mass.

For all these telling details, Rachmaninoff’s Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom has always been the quiet sibling to his other, more extroverted a cappella work, the All-Night Vigil (“Vespers”). Neglected at its birth and revived only in recent decades, the Liturgy has found a following among those seeking spiritual elevation or a glimpse of the deep Russian roots of Rachmaninoff’s distinctive melodic and harmonic style. To understand why, one need look no further than Saturday’s inspiring performance.

The program will be repeated 5 p.m. Sunday, January 1, 2023.

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