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Review for Gretchaninoff Missa Oecumunica IPCD 1036-1
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Reviews for IPCD 1036-1

Gretchaninoff - MISSA OECUMENICA, Op.142

(minus Kyrie)

Boston Symphony Orchestra, Cecilia Society & Apollo Club of Boston, 26 February 1944

Maria Kurenko - Roland Hayes - Dorothy Cornish - Robert Collins

Serge Koussevitzky, cond.

ALSO: Gretchaninoff songs; Liturgy No. 2 of St John Chrysostom, op. 79.2 Wounded Birch, op. 1/ Snow Flakes, op. 47/O, my Country, op. 1/Over the Steppe, op. 5/Dew Drops, op. 69/Aux temps heureux, op. 64/ The Snow Drop, op. 47/Ai Doudou, op. 31.2 Lullaby, op. 1/ I’ll go, I’ll come, op. 77/ On the Mountain, op. 91/ Dobrinya Nikitich: Flowers were growing in the Fields

Maria Kurenko - Nina Koshetz

with the composer, Alexander Gretchaninoff, at the piano


Colin Clarke
FANFARE magazine,
May/June 2014

Immortal Performances continues to do a great service to Wagner, but it is important to note that the company is not just about Wagner, or even just about opera for that matter. The music of Grechaninov (1864–1956) has long needed a helping hand. His setting of The Lord’s Prayer (from the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom No. 4) obtained some currency some time ago perhaps, but little else has reached the public’s consciousness. Chandos Records has made some sterling headway, however, including a recording of the main work on this Immortal Performances issue, the Missa Oecumenica (Chandos couples this with the Fifth Symphony: the Russian State Symphony is conducted by Valery Polyansky).

Yet for all its cleanliness of recording, the Chandos version is in effect immediately blown out of the water by the sheer visceral choral assault of the opening of the Gloria on the present Boston/Koussevitzky account. The chorus, singing in Latin, is fabulous (the chorus master was none other than Arthur Fiedler; and to add to the roster of famous names, the organist is E. Power Biggs).

The Missa exudes faith, although the scoring for female voices and orchestra meant that it was banned from churches initially. There is a distinct Mussorgskian monumentalism here (more overtly than in the Chandos recording) but there is a certain amount of polystylism that moves between granitic Russianisms to allusions to the lighter side of Tchaikovsky and even to the works of French composers. The soloists are excellent, shining in their contributions to the Credo, and it is here that the closing moments seem to speak of the great choral moments in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. The tenor, Roland Hayes, is beautifully sweet-toned in his higher register, especially in the Benedictus. Kurenko is gorgeously expressive. The chorus is superbly trained, the swaying gestures in the Sanctus a delight, its cries in the “Hosanna” spine-tingling in their devotion. Throughout, Koussevitzky keeps the contrasts strong. Nowhere are the strengths of this recording better shown than in the dark shadows of the Agnus Dei, where the male soloists (Hayes and Collins) lament with intensity. Their “echo,” the two female soloists, mirrors the lachrymose atmosphere. This passage, of all the Missa, is the most unbearably moving. The movement moves towards a definite radiance at the close. Koussevitzky generally takes more time than Polyansky, and the added breadth gives him a great advantage. The subtleties of the music, along with the intensity of feeling, are better projected. On the Missa alone, a performance that oozes conviction from first to last, the disc receives wholehearted recommendation.

But wait, there’s more. The composer himself, no less, on the piano for 14 songs (Kurenko sings 11 of them, Nina Koshetz the remaining three). There is huge joy to be found here for all lovers of Russian song. Kurenko sings her selections with fervor, her voice forceful but never forced. Her songs are taken from a New York Victor recording (set M 862, recorded 04.25.1941). The recording is excellent, the pianist-composer’s subtleties perfectly audible. The darkness of Over the Steppe is palpable, the composer’s own accompaniment including moments of heartbreaking sweetness, an object lesson in how to convert a seemingly straightforward and simple piano accompaniment into something poignant and unforgettable. Despite the French title, the delightful and varied Aux temps heureux, op. 64/1 (subtitled Declaration of Love) is sung in Russian. It becomes clear that Kurenko has the ability to project the true character of a great variety of songs. So it is that the “child’s song” Ai Doudou is sung with great lightness, and right next to it the op. 1 Lullaby takes on great pathos. Grechaninov seemed to like writing (and, presumably, playing) tremolandos in his songs as a specific technique to set up atmosphere. It works well (aside from Liszt, one might easily associate this with piano reductions of orchestral scores). The choice of On the Mountain to close this sequence is a fine one. A “catch me if you can” near-patter song, it is tremendous fun.

There are two versions each of the Lullaby, op. 1/5 and The Snow Drop, op. 47/9, one each by Kurenko and Koshetz. Kurenko is marginally faster in The Snow Drop, but Koshetz has more confidence and is a tad more magisterial, a trait that is clear in the Lullaby, also. The disc closes with Koshetz in an excerpt from Grechaninov’s opera Dobrinya Nikitich (Alesha’s Song), sung as what sounds like a poignant lament with a proud close (the booklet describes it as “a lovely, nature-filled musical picture of a particularly Slavonic nature”).

All in all, a clear must-have for all lovers of Russian music.

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