Passion Week From St. Petersburg, 1923, Resurrected

Review by: David Vernier


Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 9

Listeners who are fans of Rachmaninov’s All Night Vigil will find themselves in friendly and familiar territory throughout the 11 movements of Maximilian Steinberg’s Passion Week, a richly scored, unostentatious, often powerful work completed in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1923 but not performed until 2014. Unlike the Rachmaninov, a third of which contained freely-composed music, all but one of Passion Week’s movements are based on pre-existing chants. You can debate whether Steinberg’s choices in this regard help to make his work more melodically rich or overall more interesting (which liner-note author Vladimir Morosan believes), but there’s no question that this is very finely crafted Russian church music in the revered tradition of composers such as Gretchaninov, Kastalsky, Kalinnikov, and others–and deserves a place alongside them.

There is ongoing uncertainty as to why Steinberg (Rimsky-Korsakov’s “favorite student” and son-in-law, who primarily wrote symphonic music) composed Passion Week, his only known sacred choral work; and why he would compose such a piece in early 1920s Russia, where the days of tolerance for performance of religious music were clearly numbered. In fact such music was banned just when Steinberg’s work was finished. The doomed score was published–in Paris–in 1927–then eventually traveled to the U.S., where it languished for many more decades until The Clarion Choir gave it a full reading in 2014. (The world-premiere performance, in Portland, Oregon in 2014, was by Cappella Romana, who also released the work’s first recording the following year.)

The 11 movements–interspersed on this recording with five of the original chant melodies–have texts that focus attention on significant events that take place during this important church festival, shown in titles such as: The Master’s Hospitality; Of Thy Mystical Supper; The Wise Thief; Do Not Lament Me, O Mother. The music is notable primarily for Steinberg’s unreserved use of harmony to create a rich array of color–it’s all very traditional, but he’s not opposed to jazzing things here and there, or using dissonance to heighten the emotional effect of particular passages. Commentator Morosan often describes the music as polyphonic, and much of it is, but in the most simple forms, usually two upper voice-parts against two lower ones, or one voice temporarily entering against two or three others, then joining them.

But the relative complexity isn’t the point: it’s the overall effectiveness of each movement to convey the mood and meaning of the texts, in a way that causes every listener to draw near and listen and be moved. Steinberg accomplishes this from the start, with a very alluring opening Alleluia and following with a succession of choruses just varied enough to keep our attention as a concert piece–and always mindful not to let any movement go on longer than it should. One of the more beautiful and memorable of the choruses is The Master’s Hospitality, featuring some luscious harmonies and the brief yet very lovely solo singing of soprano Esteli Gomez. And speaking of soloists, conductor Steven Fox has chosen just the right voices who have the strength and the ability to project an appropriate “slavic” sound, most notably bass Phillip Cutlip.

But the success of this recording has to be attributed to this excellent chorus, 30-plus voices who collectively project a serious love for this music with a vibrant, shimmering tone, perfectly judged dynamics, and consistently fine balance and intonation. We can appreciate the care that went into this production–not only in bringing this beautiful unknown work to the world’s attention–but also in the excellent engineering and notes, which happily include full texts and translations. Strongly recommended.

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Recording Details:

    The Clarion Choir, Steven Fox

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