S022582 Shchedrin The Sealed Angel
330 Fanfare November/December 1998 by Henry Fogel
SHCHEDRIN The Sealed Angel
Lorna Cooke de Varon, cond; New England Conservatory Camerata; Longy Chamber Singers; Mark Pearson (nar), Vanessa Breault Mulvey (fl)
SONORA S022582CD (72:31)
Lorna Cooke de Varon's otherwise excellent notes do not make clear when this work was composed. Shchedrin sent her the score in 1988, after having been in residence in Boston earlier that year and hearing her New England Conservatory Chorus perform Rachmaninov's Vespers. Shchedrin was deeply moved by that performance, and sent the manuscript of The Sealed Angel to her because it was a work that he had composed somewhat in the style of the great anthems written for the Russian Orthodox Church by Rachmaninov and others. Rodion Shchedrin (b. 1932) has always been one of the most difficult of Russia's composers on whom to pin labels. His wildly eclectic style resists categorization, and he has written works with as wide a range of musical voices as perhaps anyone in the second half of this century. It is difficult to find in this piece, for instance, the wit and bite that one hears in Mischievous Melodies, or the pungency of The Carmen Ballet. At first, The Sealed Angel sounds like a piece that carries forth the lovely tradition of the Rachmaninov Vespers, but soon enough Shchedrin's more modem vocabulary asserts itself in a variety of techniques (slow-moving choral glissandos, hand-clapping, foot-stomping, and some pitched shouts from the chorus).
The Sealed Angel is imaginatively scored for a cappella chorus, solo flute, and narrator. The narrator reads excerpts from a short story by Nikolai Leskov called "The Sealed Angel," written in 1872, on which this score is based. The narration in this performance wisely is in English, while the music is sung in Russian. The story deals with a group called the Old Believers who, in 18th-century Russia, resisted modernization in the church; the tyranny of both church and government against these people is vividly depicted, though the denouement is a happy one. Shchedrin's music is highly atmospheric, deeply spiritual, moving, and memorable. The three inserted narrations are effective on the first few hearings, but one gets a bit tired of them after that (fortunately one can program them out). The solo flute is Shchedrin's musical representation of the specific icon (an Angel) that is at the center of the story, and it is a highly imaginative touch - especially when the writing is as vivid and picturesque as it is here.
Lorna Cooke de Varon and these forces gave the work its American premiere in 1990, and the composer heard a recording of that performance and praised it. This disc is a compilation of two live performances from May 1997, and it is clearly a labor of love. The choral singing is lovely, well balanced, secure, warm, and impassioned. De Varon's conducting has shape, direction, and variety of intensity - in short, it seems ideal. Vanessa Breault Mulvey's flute playing is ethereal, just as it should be. I find Mark Pearson's narration somewhat underinflected. I admire his decision to understate, but feel he went too far, and I found my mind wandering during his readings. The live recorded sound is perhaps a tad too distant, with a churchlike reverberation that might have benefited from a bit more presence and focus; but it certainly does not detract seriously from the positive listening experience. There are occasional extraneous noises (at one point I think the narrator is turning a page), but again they are minor distractions. As indicated, the conductor supplies excellent notes, and Sonora provides a full English translation of the sung numbers (but no Russian original, neither in Cyrillic nor in transliteration). Very highly recommended.
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