For starters, this CD contains some of the finest a cappella singing I've ever heard. Its sumptuous choral tone must be heard to be believed. It is done by two professional choirs from seemingly unlikely places, the combined Kansas City Chorale and Phoenix Bach Choir. I have raved about their prior recordings both separately and in combination but this release possibly tops anything they've done, at least in terms of ineffably beautiful a cappella choral sound. The Grechaninov 'Passion Week' is a setting of thirteen pieces with texts in Church Slavonic meant to be sung individually over the period of Passion Week, the days leading up to the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. (And, frankly, I would suggest that listeners ration their listening to one or two sections of the work at a time, in order to experience the unique effect of each individual piece, although there is something to be said for listening to the whole thing -- 74-plus minutes -- to experience its almost hypnotizing cumulative effect.) The Russian Orthodox Church has a tradition of morning and evening services during Passion Week when the passion week's events are recalled almost in 'real time.' The music itself is generally slow, meditative, largely monophonic and almost trance-like. It must be incredibly difficult to sing. One can only imagine the kind of breath support required. One notices that the usual number of singers in these two choirs has been supplemented by several additional basses, no surprise considering the long legato lines required of that section. Their low C's and even B's resound like the tolling of great bells throughout the work. One could almost surmise, if one didn't know, that this was the singing of a Russian choir, so noted for their deep basses, except that the blending and rounding of the choral tone is so very much more subtle than is generally heard from Russian choruses. The work is entirely choral, but there are occasional soprano, tenor and baritone solos which consist mostly of chants sung against the main body of massed sound.
Aleksandr Tikhonovich Grechaninov (1864-1956) was a few years older than Sergey Rachmaninov and his sacred music is in many ways similar in style to that of the better-known composer. Grechaninov's 'Passion Week' was written in 1912, shortly before Rachmaninov wrote his well-known 'Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom' which has also been recorded by the Kansas City Chorale in a lauded release which unfortunately is not easily available these days but worth seeking out. After the Revolution Grechaninov emigrated from the Soviet Union and eventually wound up in the US where he became a citizen. He continued, even after leaving Russia, to write music for emigré congregations of the Russian church although he also began writing liturgical works for the Roman Catholic Church as well. His sacred music is what he is best known for, although he also wrote operas, songs and orchestral works.
There is no question that Charles Bruffy, the conductor of both the Phoenix Bach Choir and the Kansas City Chorale, is one of the most talented choirmasters currently working anywhere in the world. He may very well be the US analog to Eric Ericson of Sweden or Laurence Equilbey of France. Certainly his choruses' style is more European than English, and it is to the English Chandos label's credit that they have added these two Bruffy-directed choirs to their roster. One looks forward to any and all future releases from these marvelous groups.
This is a hybrid SACD disc which means it can be played on both a regular CD player or on SACD equipment. In either format the sound is rich, warm and true.
The previous release of the combined Phoenix Bach Choir and the Kansas City Chorale, featuring mainly the Mass for Double Choir by Frank Martin, is here: Eternal Rest - Phoenix Bach Choir, Kansas City Chorale