In times of difficulty and insecurity, like now with a highly contagious virus spreading over the world, people will search for something tangible to hold on to. Something that gives warmth and hope, doesn’t change and has already for a long time been an unshakable part of humanity.
This is what crossed my mind when I received this latest release from Cappella Records. The composition may be new, but the worship isn’t. The Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom is as old as Byzantine Christianity and has comforted millions of souls since. When listening to it I became wondrously aware that the magic of what Benedict Sheehan conveys so impressively with this world premiere recording, may offer to many, whether or not they are an active believer, a much-needed refuge.
This is the first of a series of four to be produced by Blanton Alspaugh with the Soundmirror engineering team. And to further underscore Cappella Records’ ambition, Sheehan has taken with him the professional singers of the Saint Tikhon Monastery in Pennsylvania. Lovers of Orthodox music could not have wished for more.
Were this one to be compared to a similar, recent Reference Recordings release with the PaTRAM Institute Singers and Peter Jermihov conducting, then major differences would have to be taken into consideration. Not least that it is written by another composer, with different objectives (Kurt Sander), covering the complete Liturgy, whereas Sheehan’s is presented here in an abridged version. Moreover, in the words of the composer: “I have endeavored to build a 21st-century American Orthodox Liturgy upon the resistant foundation of the Russian Orthodox musical tradition”. But perhaps even more important to readers of this site, the Reference release is not available in a physical (SACD) format.
As suggested above, Sheehan’s new version conforms to the traditional Russian style, though perhaps more audaciously building on the musical footprints of Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky. Listeners will be pleased to hear that it has a familiar ring to it. Be that as it may, it is above all the excellence of the singers and soloists that will emphatically catch your critical ear. Living on the other side of the large North Atlantic pond, I must quite frankly admit that I had not heard of any of them before. Familiar with Cappella Romana and the PaTRAM Institute Singers, both of which I rate to be at least equal to many of the best East-European Orthodox Choirs, I was more than surprised to discover in the Saint Tikhon Choir yet another top-class example of an active American Orthodox tradition.
As further proof of Benedict Sheehan’s aiming for no less than the best, each of the soloists have been carefully handpicked from the members of the choir to fulfill their designated part with so much conviction. The commanding voices of Michael Hawes and Jason Thoms stand out clearly. Though countertenors were originally borne out of sheer necessity, and hence in our time are not always the best choice for the part, I can confirm that Timothy Parsons […] is now one of the happy few in my book who is.
Summing it up, Benedict Sheehan must be congratulated for having added another work to the many already-existing versions of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy worth hearing and admiring. He has, of course, the advantage of being an experienced choir director and knowing best his own composition. Together with his choristers and prime soloists, everything falls into place. But if I had to single out one of the tracks that fits best my thoughts as expressed at the beginning, then I would select number 11 ‘Anaphora’. It is a balm for my, and possibly many other, souls; it is as intense as it is exquisite.
For completeness’ sake, it should be noted that this new version, using the official English text, was commissioned by the Patriarch Tikhon Russian-American Music Institute (PaTRAM Institute). For illuminating details about these, for many perhaps not so easily-understood, religious matters, I urge you to read the interesting and well-written liner notes.
Sound & sight-wise, there is an abundant array of choices: A conventional CD plus a Blu-Ray Pure Audio 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround DTS MA 24/192, with 2 additional video tracks taken during the recording sessions May 2020 at St. Stephen’s Pro-Cathedral, Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania with Mark Donahue doing the mixing and the mastering. And if this wasn’t enough, a two-hour video of the complete Divine Liturgy celebration held in October of 2019 at the St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral in Washington D.C. is included, with all its pomp and circumstance. A document to cherish.
Blangy-le-Château, Normandy, France.
Copyright © 2020 Adrian Quanjer and HRAudio.net
Read the original review here.