November 5, 2020
Benedict Sheehan: Liturgy
Timothy Parsons, counter-tenor. Michael Hawes, baritone.
Jason Thomas, bass.
Saint Tikhon Choir/Benedict Sheehan
Capella Records CR421
Total Time: 75:33
One of the instructive ways to appreciate the music of Russian composers (especially those of the 19th Century), is to expose oneself to the Russian Orthodox musical traditions. It is in this music that one hears a distinctive harmonic sound and richness that can be discerned as informing the fabric of the works of composers like Tchaikovsky, the Mighty 5, Gretchaninoff, and Rachmaninoff. The latter’s Vespers (All-Night Vigil, Op. 37) is perhaps one of the most significant and well-known examples of a composer’s exploring the liturgical music of a Russian Orthodox ceremony. Enter American composer Benedict Sheehan who was commissioned by the Patriarch Tikhon Russian-American Music Institute to create an entirely new liturgical setting in 2015. The result is the present recording of the resulting Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (2018).
Part of the approach Sheehan was encouraged to take was to develop a liturgy that honored the Russian heritage of the church, but which also took into consideration the needs of English-speaking worship. The work is a blend of liturgical components (litanies, various antiphons and hymns, an “Our Father”, communion, blessing) and psalm settings (Sheehan adapted Psalms 145 and 148). There are references to ancient Znamenny and Valaam chants as well. As the liturgy opens in its typical call and response with its single chant-like line. The choir then responds in its rich harmonic style. Listeners familiar with the work of composers like Morten Lauridsen will discern a kindred choral style in this music that connects spiritual power and beauty. Reducing this to simple spiritual minimalist writing though will not do the work justice. There are moments that hint at pentatonic lines which adds an ethereal quality to the texts. It actually will become an additional unifying feature of the entire liturgy. Full choral writing also takes a firm page from contemporary American choral writing, though arguably there are many times where how the cadences are arrived at that belie their more Russian heritage. This is a quite fascinating blend. Even in parts of the first antiphon there is even a slight folkish feel as it moves into its final moments. The greatest difficulty for such a massive work is to find the right blend of textural changes and harmonic approaches so that the music can stay fresh. Sheehan does this by alternating the litany segments in more traditional call-and-response with choral writing that moves from open blocks of sound into multiple subtle, shifting lines—a sort of gentle polyphony. This then comes back together for homophonic textures of rich harmony. By shifting which voices become the lead of a line, he is able to provide additional variety. Of course, something to keep in mind is that other things occur occasionally in worship that provide that extra space needed. He manages to help continue the line of musical structure throughout to help connect to what has come before and move us forward to where we are in the liturgy as a whole.
To say that this is a gorgeous performance feels a bit sacrilegious, and yet that is indeed one way to describe the stunning music and choral work. There is a sense too that the music can be easily adapted for most local choirs—may they be inspired to aspire to the heights reached here. Certainly there are any variety of segments that would work fine as standalone choral pieces. The release of Sheehan’s liturgical setting could perhaps not come at a better time as we all are separated, unable to gather in our places of worship, or have this weekly communal opportunity to connect to the divine. While the liturgical tradition may not be one’s own, that should not be a deterrent to anyone. There is music here to touch the soul and might very well make some weep with the memories of their own worshipping communities. There is that additional interior promise of hope and joy, mixed with appropriate reverence, that can also help listeners connect to the divine.
The release is accompanied by a Blu-Ray disc that features the music in its Liturgical premiere from October, 2019 (lasting a little over 2 hours)—a fine visual to help add additional context to the music for those less familiar with the tradition. Also included there is the World Premiere of the “Cherubic Hymn” which as a sort of sneak preview of what was to come (performed in May of 2019) and the “Communion Hymn”. The sonic capacity of the performance is thoroughly enhanced with several audio options that provide a surround sound option to fully immerse yourself in this experience. Regardless of one’s faith expression, this music on its own has the power to heal your soul and transform you from the present moment.