The North Carolina Master Chorale, under the direction of Alfred E. Sturgis, presented a performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s ethereal Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, Op. 31, in Binkley Chapel on the campus of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest. Though the room is cavernous, the acoustics are not, and the music suffered somewhat for this. This is the kind of music that really comes to life in a cathedral-like setting with a reverb time of 4-6 seconds. The sound should be significantly better in the venue for their repeat of this program at Broughton High School on April 27 at 3:00 p.m.

The concert began with an anthem by the early 20th century Russian composer, Alexandre Gretchaninoff. With its rich tones and unmistakable Russian flavor, “Holy Radiant Light,” sung in an English translation, set the tone for the major work. The approximately 170-voice Master Chorale produced a glorious sound from very low basses to soaring sopranos. The chorus, divided in seven parts at times, captured the rich harmonies and expressive contrasts as well as the spiritual depth of this popular Orthodox anthem.

The Liturgy of St John Chrysostom is the standard liturgical rite of most churches in the Orthodox tradition, serving the same function as the Mass in the Roman Catholic Church. It is attributed to the Patriarch of Constantinople from 398 to 404, John Chrysostom, who was known as a fiery preacher and for his concern for theologically orthodox liturgy.

In the western tradition, the mass became central in the development of classical music. Along with the motet, mass movements and complete mass settings drove the development of music in Europe. In contrast, it was not until the 19th century that interest in religious music took off in Russia. Dimitry Bortniansky (1751-1825), Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-93), Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov (1859-1935), and Pavel Chesnokov (1877-1944) all contributed significantly to Russian sacred music. Among others, Tchaikovsky and Ippolitov-Ivanov wrote complete settings of The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.

Rachmaninoff’s setting, composed in 1910, was a deeply personal expression of his piety and his love of his homeland. The work premiered November 25, 1910, in Moscow. Russian Orthodox ecclesiastical authorities strongly objected to the work’s modern harmonies and refused to sanction it for use in actual church services. It soon fell into obscurity and was not widely heard again until the late 1980s. Rachmaninoff’s other sacred choral work of significance, the All Night Vigil, Op. 35, composed in 1915, has fared better; it is recognized as a masterpiece and has maintained its popularity with the public.

The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom was sung in Russian and included the solo parts of the Deacon (Andrew Leager, bass) and Celebrants (Phil Hanna and Alex Ronke, baritones). This music is Russian through and through; much of it scored with homophonic harmony (one chord on each syllable like a Bach chorale). When those chords jell, especially on the glorious cadences, the result is one of the most comforting sounds imaginable. The phrasing and dynamics, so well done by the Master Chorale, gave life and meaning even though few if any in the audience understood Russian. There were other passages where an inner line or a solo voice lifts off in a counter melody of exquisite beauty. Soprano Genevieve Lipp provided such a moment in the chorus “We Hymn Thee” (or “We Praise Thee”). “Our Father” (“Otche nash,” in Russian transliteration) for double choir was special, with both choirs divided into multiple parts for its remarkable antiphonal effects.

To hear this music is to be in the presence of incense – and of prayers rising, of forgiveness, and blessing, falling upon all. Its comfort and inspiration are a special experience. What sounds so elemental and basic is not at all easy. There are rhythms difficult to master unless you are familiar with Russian folk music. There are harmonies demanding intense concentration on pitch. And there is the daunting task, for American singers, of learning Russian.

The performance was well done, considering all of the above. The soloists were very good and most impressive in their comfort with the language. All in all, the choir did not quite live up to its usual standard of excellence. There were some ensemble issues and some false entrances –  but very few  pitch issues, considering such a long and demanding piece of unaccompanied music. No doubt, by the program’s repeat, Maestro Sturgis will find a way to polish up these details.

The program will be given again on Sunday, April 27, at 3:00 p.m., at Broughton High School in Raleigh. For details, see the sidebar.