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David Vernier, May 2011

Refined, reverential, and yet specially charged in its sincere, soulful human expression—not to mention its gorgeous choral sonority—this may be the finest performance on disc of Rachmaninov’s unique setting of the hymns, psalms, prayers, and litanies that make up the Russian Orthodox Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. The Latvian Radio Choir not only possesses the rich-colored tone (those altos!) and substantial vocal range (those basses!) to convincingly sing the expressive and texturally varied numbers in this hour-long version of the work, but also leaves no question as to its collective, deeply felt understanding of the meaning of the texts and of the overall service itself.

Throughout the Second and Third Antiphons, for instance, you can’t help but just be caught up in the sheer beauty of the music and in the responsiveness of the ensemble to conductor Sigvards Klava’s nuances of phrasing and dynamics. How can you not be moved and impressed by the lovely sound, perfect blend, and vibrant timbre in the Communion Verse “Hvalite Gospoda”? Yes, this is not just a functional liturgical work, but a masterpiece of high artistic quality as well. The recording in Riga’s Dome Cathedral allows Rachmaninov’s sensuous melodies and gripping harmonies plenty of room to blossom while preserving top-to-bottom balance and clear detail of each vocal line. Essential!

Culture Catch, January 2011

Despite being every bit as magical an a cappella Russian masterpiece as his Vespers, Rachmaninov’s Liturgy is not nearly as famous, so there are about half as many recordings currently available. This one may not be quite its best performance on record (I’d lean towards the Moscow Chamber Choir led by Vladimir Minin on an out-of-print Melodiya disc), but it’s certainly the best combination of authentically rich/deep vocal tone and spectacular sonics (with both clarity and fullness), and offers more precision without sacrificing much atmosphere. Minin’s is more prototypically darkly Russian, but the Latvians are no light-voiced English choir, and as a purely musical performance this surpasses that lustier 1988 Melodiya while being light years ahead of it sonically.

David Patrick Stearns
The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 2010

Rachmaninoff’s liturgical music is infrequently heard here, as deep, Slavic bass voices are all but mandatory, along with knowledge of the religious culture that inspired it. The Latvian Radio Choir has all the necessary vocal resources plus an elegance not often heard from Russian choirs.

The WSCL Blog, September 2010

Rachmaninoff wrote two great works for the Russian Orthodox Church; the well-known Vespers or All-Night Vigil was composed second, and is well-represented on CD. The Liturgy of St John Chrysostom was composed first, in 1910, and is not quite as familiar. This luminous new recording of the Liturgy may shed some new light on it (oops, pardon the pun…hmm, on second thought, let's keep it.)

James A. Altena
Fanfare, September 2010

The choir sings extremely well...The SACD sonics pack a huge wallop, unlike any other performance of this work I’ve heard, engulfing one’s ears in a wondrous aural ocean. The booklet contains a dual-language text. If you favor or don’t mind the omission of the litanies, this disc likely will be your preference.

Lindsay Koob
American Record Guide, September 2010

Here’s an hour of pure Russian choral heaven, courtesy of a most excellent Latvian choir that—even decades after the Baltic nations threw off the Soviet yoke—still can’t escape the Russian side of its musical roots. Rachmaninoff’s Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, dating from 1910, is the composer’s first attempt to set a major piece of the Russian Orthodox liturgy—and this particular chunk of it happens to be the Russian church’s most revered sacred text. His final major a cappella choral effort is of course the better-known (and more highly regarded) Vespers, composed five years later.

While Rachmaninoff was hardly religious in a conventional sense, ancient Russian chants and the Orthodox tradition held tremendous fascination for him. But he approached the two works in entirely different ways. While the Vespers uses actual (and recognizable) chant-melodies as the basis for his harmonic elaborations, the Liturgy sets the classic texts to musical materials of the composer’s own invention, marking a radical departure from long-standing Orthodox strictures.

But Tchaikovsky—with his own lush “modern” setting of the Liturgy some 30 years earlier—had blazed the trail; and his publisher took legal action against the church and won an injunction that allowed the work to be published and performed. Still, the church wasn’t happy with such profanations of holy tradition. A typical objection came via a cousin of Rachmaninoff’s—from a religion teacher at the school where she worked: “The music is really wonderful, even too beautiful, but in the presence of such music it is difficult to pray. It’s not church music.”

This music remains somewhat simpler and less richly scored (also less passionate)—than the later Vespers, but it also remains a masterpiece of imitative choral composition, achieving a comparatively relaxed and meditative aura. These more subdued qualities are beautifully realized by Maestro Klava and company. They approach the music with a typical Orthodox sound and spirituality, while avoiding the near-shrieking, vibrato-heavy sonorities of some old-school Russian choirs that sometimes distort pitches and grate on the ear. So they have brought a measure of Westerninspired choral subtlety and precision to the piece. Yet there’s no stinting on the usual Russian power and sacred intensity where called for. Ondine’s luscious sound in a beautifully reverberant acoustic leaves the listener swimming joyfully in a glowing sonic sea. Even if you aren’t SA-equipped, this recording ought to bring you this deep and amazing music as you’ve never heard it before.

Ronald E. Grames
Fanfare, September 2010

Both of Rachmaninoff’s large-scale a cappella works, the All Night Vigil (Vespers) and The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, had difficult beginnings. The Vespers (1915), suppressed with all religious music by the Bolshevik after the 1917 revolution, was not recorded until 1965 and then only for Western consumption. The earlier St. Chrysostom Liturgy nearly succumbed to the early controversy it created. Written by Rachmaninoff in July 1910 in a burst of nostalgic enthusiasm, it was inspired by memories of his youthful fascination with the sound of St. Petersburg’s Russian Orthodox choirs. Rachmaninoff captured that remembered sound wonderfully. However, the rich harmonic language of the Liturgy and the almost chromatic progressions in the final choruses were far removed from the approved archaic Church modes. The ecclesiastical authorities acknowledged the work’s serene beauty, but though his setting of the fifth-century liturgy was quite conservative for an early 20th-century composition, they banned the use of the work in Orthodox churches because of its “modernist spirit.” Sections of the work were performed in concert for a while, but Rachmaninoff seems to have done little to support the work and, after the Russian revolution, it, like the Vespers, disappeared.

Liturgy had to wait until 1977 for its first recording, a joint venture between EMI and Balkanton, performed by Mikhil Milkov and the Bulgarian Radio Chorus. Now, thanks to ready availability of parts and score, there are more than a dozen recordings of the work from which to choose, including a number of Russian recordings made after the dissolution of the USSR. Many of these are excellent; this latest may be the best in several ways. The Latvian Radio Choir’s singing is sensuously beautiful: the tone Slavic, but more refined and better blended than some of that provenance. The choir boasts rich-toned basses capable of sustaining the low Bin the Credo. The performance is both devotional and thrillingly dynamic. Pacing is subtly varied to underline the text, often creating, as at the beginning of “In Thy Kingdom,” a breath-catching sense of time suspended. The balances achieved by Kļava and his chorus of 25 are ideal; the exquisite rising of the pure-voiced soprano soloist from the chorus in “We Hymn Thee” is but one of many examples. The pitch and diction are exemplary, whether the voices have been tapered to a mere thread of tone or are ringing in the great dome of the Riga Cathedral. The two liturgical soloists are excellent in their truncated roles. The Latvian Radio recording is stunning, creating a palpable sense of the chorus in a large reverberant space with no loss of focus or clarity.

There will be one point of hesitation for some collectors; as with all single-disc releases of this work, there are cuts. Gone are the chanted litanies with their haunting choral refrains (most of “The Great Litany” and the two “Little Litanies” following sections 2 and 3) as well as two whole sections: No. 7, the “Augmented Litany,” and No. 15, “And to Your Spirit,” with its exultant concluding chorus, “Only One is Holy.” The similarly jubilant “Blessed Is He” is cut from No. 17, and, oddly, the “Glory to the Father” of the final section is cut, leaving the often eliminated “Many Years” to conclude the work. More than a third of the 95-minute Liturgy is gone, most of it the deacon’s and priest’s monodic singing. Those who prefer a concert-like presentation may well prefer the cuts. Those who insist on full versions should look to Milkov and his Bulgarian choir (OP but available from ArkivMusic) and the less authentically Slavic, though glorious, Bruffy/Kansas City Chorale on Nimbus. (The latter has the most potent basses of any recording mentioned.) Given its overall distinction, however, I will not part easily with this gorgeously sung and recorded new release.

Andrew Stewart
Classic FM, July 2010

The Latvian Radio Choir’s soft grained, impeccably tuned sounds serve the work’s meditative qualities well, as does its sparing use of vibrato and Sigvards Klava’s poetic way with phrase endings.

Blair Sanderson, May 2010

Composed in 1910, but only reconstructed from parts as late as the 1980s, after a long period of obscurity, the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom is one of Sergey Rachmaninov’s most profoundly moving choral works, as well as one of his most harmonically rich and sonically radiant compositions. This setting of the Liturgy, along with Rachmaninov’s Vespers and other sacred pieces, enjoyed a significant revival in the 1990s during the general awakening of interest in religious music for meditative listening, and their popularity has continued through periodic releases of first-rate recordings. This 2010 SACD by the Latvian Radio Choir is an excellent example of a phenomenally polished ensemble delivering the Liturgy with sublime expression and subtle textures, all with an appropriate reverence for Orthodox Christian worship (even though this setting was never embraced by the church because of its advanced harmonies). Yet this is such a gorgeous-sounding performance in all its aspects, listeners really can’t be blamed for appreciating or even luxuriating in the lushness of the choir’s a cappella chanting, the steady but seemingly timeless tempos, and the embracing resonance of the spacious Dome Cathedral in Riga, where this recording was made in 2008. Ondine’s DSD reproduction is spotless, and the wonderful sound reveals full sonic dimensions and a wide frequency range. Highly recommended.

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