Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom

Birmingham Bach Choir

St. Paul's Church

Jewellery Quarter, Birmingham


The 150th anniversary of Serge (Sergei) Rachmaninoff’s birth, in 1873, near Novgorod, Russia, is being widely celebrated this year. Rightly so, for he remains one of the most accomplished, and famous, composers to emerge from a country packed with great musicians: Balakirev, Tanayev, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov: the list goes on and on.

However most of these sesquicentennial (150th) observances have tended to focus on (fabulous) works quite widely performed already: the Second and Third Piano Concertos, of course; the Second (not Third) Symphony; the stupendous Prelude in C sharp minor – his Opus 3, can you believe it: no wonder Tchaikovsky gave him some advice. Even symphonic poems like The Bells and The Isle of the Dead have got an outing this year. Maybe most importantly, and deeply moving, his sensational Vespers (mid-war 1915, of all years).

But there are omissions. The Birmingham Bach choir, headed and inspiredly conducted by composer, biographer and conductor Paul Spicer, has thanks to him been moved to focus on repertoire by well-known that is rarely visited or performed. This responds to a situation both he feels strongly about. You can imagine Spicer turning to, say, Elgar’s King Olaf, Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater (Stała matka bolejąca), Delius’s A Mass of Life, Telemann’s Der Tag des Gerichts (The Day of Judgement), Handel’s Brockes Passion, Benedict’s St. Peter, and so on.

But typically, Paul; Spicer has chosen to celebrate Rachmaninoff’s memory in a different, and brilliant way. While the Vespers features ubiquitously, his Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is virtually never heard. Anywhere here. Inexplicable, for it stands out as a work (composed in 1910, an hour or so long) every bit as compelling, especially given its liturgical role (performed at services of the Orthodox Church).

This St. John (c347-407 AD) was Archbishop of Constantinople – as several of the Christian saints or fathers were, was nicknamed Cristostomos (‘Golden-mouthed’) for his famed oratory and extensive writings, and was honoured much more widely than in just the Eastern Orthodox communion.

Birmingham’s amateur large Choruses – the Birmingham Choral Union, the Birmingham Festival Choral Society, the City of Birmingham Choir - deserve to be hymned nationwide: what a wealth of Midland talent. But among the finest in the country is undoubtedly the Birmingham Bach Choir: confident, assured, riveting, exciting.

Time and again, Spicer has masterfully trained his chorus members to standards that are quite astonishing. Can one fault them? I don’t think so. And this was indeed a West Midlands premiere: something for our region to be deeply proud of.

Especially when they undertake, in the original Russian, a long, quite arduous multi-movement work as the Chrysostom Liturgy. My companion on Saturday evening (Passiontide) was – shrewd decision! - a lady from Rostov-on-Don, southern Russia (ironically close to the ghastly fought over eastern Ukraine).


Paul Spicer conducts the rehearsal of Rachmaninov's liturgy

Mrs. Sabotskaya confirmed to me (also to the conductor) that the choirs’ Russian pronunciation, its members having received, he explained, intensive coaching, was in essence very good indeed. No mean feat.

The Liturgy is unaccompanied, as it would be in a Russian church or cathedral, and it was so designed. One of the many extraordinary things is that, although the essential harmonies and paralleling of the voices fits the usual Orthodox style, Rachmaninov at certain points divides it seems all the voices – sopranos, tenors, basses, I dare say altos as well, into three parts: the most amazing, somewhat original shifting chords. Did we hear all twelve at one time? I guess we must have. But also the pairing of upper voices (SA) and the lower voices (TB) – it happened in a fair few movements, with the upper two starting and then joined by first, tenors and then, basses - was particularly ingenious.

Of course there were a number of famous settings of the major sacred choral sequences: Chesnokov; the late 18th century Bortniansky (edited by Tchaikovsky); Tchaikovsky himself; even Stravinsky. Yet what Paul Spicer’s choir and bold undertaking has proved is that this so long overlooked Liturgy is a masterpiece.

Some atmosphere is generated by the fact that Rachmaninoff honours the church tradition by beginning each, or most, movements with a solo chant by a cantor, introducing the theme of the ensuing section. Spicer himself honoured that tradition (it might be possible, tempting, to bypass this detail), employing as the three soloists tenor Graham Stroud (much in evidence as The Celebrant), William (Bill) Robinson, cast in the telling role of a Deacon, and also a soprano (Corinna Gregory). One bonus is that this gives the choir – maybe the (here, packed) audience – a very brief breather: interstices, as it were.

Yet the atmosphere is in part created, or enhanced, by these passages from the Service. The bass, heralding the Nicene Creed (perhaps luckily not the Athanasian, a whole world longer) and the next section; the tenor prefacing the immensely appealing setting of the Beatitudes (‘Blessed are they’…: ‘Blazheni nischii dukhom’) and an alluring Hymn to the Virgin (‘I Matya Boga nashego’), one of the sections especially finely led off by paired sopranos and (divided?) Altos. The Lord’s Prayer (‘Otche nash’) stands alone, without cantor beforehand.

We have to thank the conductor, who of course, maybe in consultation, proposes and carries out this magnificent choir’s often daring, or at least original, repertoire. What else, or what in particular impressed? One striking aspect – and the choir matched this superbly – is the way Rachmaninov often alternates gentle, almost lulling treatments with quite dramatic outbursts. Sometimes this can even happen in mid-movement, much the same way as invariably settings of the Magnificat (Evening Canticles) do in our tradition.

There are positive explosions, very well handled, in the Nicene Creed. Likewise towards the end of the ‘Cherubic hymn’. There are frequent resorts to cheerful, almost dancing, certainly rapt, Alleluias. And an especially touching short passage is ‘Tebye poyem’ – ‘’We praise you, we bless you’, which one might expect to be loud and buoyant, but which Rachmaninoff unexpectedly makes one of the most tender and serene of all.

Did this achieve Paul Spicer’s purpose? Undoubtedly yes. In setting before his audience a work of staggering beauty and intensity, which scarcely any of them will have encountered before. But also in putting his choir through its paces in a work whose challenge was in itself a tribute from him to its members, an expression of confidence in his singers. What a success. What a treat. And what an achievement.   

Roderic Dunnett


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