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ClassicsOnline Home » BORTNIANSKY, D.S.: Sacred Concertos Nos. 1, 6, 9, 15, 18, 21, 27, 32 (I cried out to the Lord) (Ensemble Cherubim, Kuzma)
Ukrainian-born Dmitry Bortniansky studied composition in Italy and later became the first native Kapellmeister to the Russian Czars. His choir was renowned throughout Europe. As a composer for the Orthodox Church, which forbids the use of musical instruments, Bortniansky developed a symphonic approach to choral writing that influenced all later Slavic composers and gives his Choral Concertos their absolute distinctiveness. The Cherubic Hymn No 7 is among the best-known of all Slavic choral works. Concerto No 32 was beloved of many of his Slavic successors, including Tchaikovsky. This recording of the concertos is the first to restore authentic early nineteenth-century Church Slavonic pronunciation and reintroduce fine details found in archival sources.
Dmitry Bortniansky (1751–1825)
I cried out to the Lord: Hymns and Choral Concertos
Dmitry Bortniansky’s Choral Concerto No 27 begins with a small still voice. The words “With my voice unto the Lord have I cried” are uttered in a spare octave by soprano and alto soloists. Just a few measures later, the response this “voice” elicits from the full chorus is powerful and majestic. The choral sounds that ensue in the course of the entirety of Concerto No 27 are nuanced, colourful, and sophisticated. Like this concerto, our recording as a whole gives voice to the composer Dmitry Bortniansky, whose choral music is at once intimate and magnificently expressive. The recording aims to recreate what Hector Berlioz must have heard during his travels to Russia. In his Soirees de l’orchestre he describes a performance of Bortniansky’s music wherein there was “an entanglement of voice parts that seemed impossible: vague murmurs as one sometimes hears in dreams and attacks that, in their intensity, resembled outbursts, seizing the heart all of the sudden.”
Dmitry Bortniansky was born in Ukraine, grew up singing in the choir of the Russian Imperial court, studied composition in Italy, and later became the first native Slavic Kapellmeister to the Czars. He was, by all accounts, a consummate choral director and highly successful composer. During his directorship of the Imperial Court Chapel, the choir performed not only his music and that of his contemporaries in St Petersburg but also Handel’s Messiah, Haydn’s Creation, and, most notably, the world première of Beethoven’s virtuosic Missa solemnis. Because his singers were trained to sing a cappella motets, large-scale choral-orchestral works, and opera alike, Bortniansky’s choir had a varied sound unique to all of Europe. In his own music for the Orthodox church, which forbids the use of instruments, Bortniansky incorporated a symphonic approach to the a cappella choral medium. The flexible grouping and alternation of solo and tutti voices that he developed in the choral concertos influenced the works of all later Slavic composers. Bortniansky’s Cherubic Hymn No 7, which opens this recording, is among the best-known pieces in the Slavic choral repertoire. His hymn Kol slaven was for a period adopted as an unofficial Russian anthem. Translated into many languages, the hymn was originally intended as an expression of universal brotherhood.
In total Bortniansky composed over fifty choral concertos for four-voice and double chorus. Some of the concertos include moments of great joy: for example the opening movements of Concerto No 1, Concerto No 6 (a Christmas concerto), and Concertos No 9 and No 15 (Easter concertos). The middle movement of Concerto No 15 includes one of the most searing passages in all of the concertos—a description of the crucifixion replete with chromaticism. There are also moments of profound contemplation, as in Concerto No 32, Tchaikovsky’s favourite of the Bortniansky concertos. This concerto ends with an unusually long and poignant fugue, an expression of both resistance and resignation to death. The final fugue of Concerto No 27, on the other hand, expresses the rule of God’s righteousness in an absolute, obstinate, (Beethovenian) three-note anacrusic motive.
The brilliance of Bortniansky’s “voice” as a composer perhaps has become obscured over the centuries and for various reasons. His music defies simple categorization. Bortniansky lived on the cusp of Classicism and Romanticism: the ornaments in his music sound like Mozart, while his weighted accents and wide dynamic range resemble Schubert. Bortniansky was Slavic by heritage yet educated in Italy. He was a singer by training with a symphonic imagination. After his death, his identity became lost first in the polemics of late nineteenth-century nationalism (Russians saw his music as too Italianate) and later in the anti-religious sentiment of the Soviet era. There is also something in this sacred music that perhaps disturbs the Orthodox ethos. What seems important to the Orthodox sensibility is an aura of mystery: music should reflect the overall spirit of scripture without calling attention to the literal meaning of individual words. Bortniansky’s music in all its textural variety and dynamic contrast is often very illustrative of specific words. Concerto No 21, for example, verges on madrigalism with its descriptions of treading trepidaciously on serpents and victoriously prevailing over lions, dragons, and thousands of enemies.
Finally, Bortniansky’s music perhaps has been misunderstood owing to the nature of the editions and the recordings available. There are recordings in the rich, legato choral style of traditional Russian choirs. While beautiful, these tend to create a wash of sound that blurs the fine detail indicated in Bortniansky’s scores. Recordings with a strictly leaner sound, however, seem to minimize the broad contrasts indicated in the scores and might trivialize the drama and rhetoric inherent to the text and music. The a cappella sound that Bortniansky seems to have cultivated in his choir and imagined in composing his concertos has a wide emotional range: as varied as the words expressed in the Psalm verses Bortniansky chooses. The actual, authentic Bortniansky walks the line between modest and luxurious, economical and ornate, meditative and extroverted.
The present recording is the first to turn to several early archival sources to seek out all the original pitches, rhythms, solo-tutti indications, dynamic indications, and unusual accents of Bortniansky’s scores. This recording is also the first to restore the authentic pronunciation of Church Slavonic as it would have been practiced in early nineteenth-century St Petersburg: a diction that differs from either Ukrainian or Russian current practices. It also attempts to recreate the unique sound of Bortniansky’s choir: both pure and fully embodied. With this approach, our recording hopes to convey the full expressive range of the sacred texts that Bortniansky so ingeniously depicts in his score and the music that Berlioz praised so effusively.
This recording features various Bortniansky pieces that explicitly and repeatedly mention the act of singing to the Lord a new song, crying out to God with one’s voice, singing praises for ever and ever. Fundamentally, Bortniansky’s music gives voice to the Orthodox precept that humans can best understand the word of God and best achieve communion with God in the act of singing and hearing song. In hearing Bortniansky’s concertos, they are able to sense both God’s glorious majesty and tender mercy. In singing this music, they are able to “set aside all earthly care” and enter the transcendent realm of the Cherubim.
A personal note of gratitude and reflection from the conductor
I am very grateful to the many helpful music scholars and librarians in St Petersburg, and to the University of California, Berkeley, for its support of this project. I am also grateful to the dedicated choral singers I have directed while working on my critical edition of the Bortniansky choral concertos. In a sense the edition and this recording began very early, in my childhood. This is some of the first music I ever heard or sang. A more discerning understanding of Bortniansky’s music began in the summer of 1991. Just a few years after the fall of the Berlin wall and a few months before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, I travelled to Russia to research the music of Bortniansky in the archives of (then still called) Leningrad. The timing of this pilgrimage now seems very poetic to me. During those months in Russia and in the years since, I have been struck by how much Bortniansky as a composer straddled the shifting borders of Eastern and Western European music, sacred and secular sensibility, as well as Orthodox and Western Christian theology. Bortniansky belongs exclusively to no single culture or tradition. His voice is uniquely his own. I am grateful that Bortniansky crossed borders in his life and in his music. Similarly, I hope that his music and this recording will help to challenge barriers of musical style, religion, and vocal aesthetic and will find new listeners with newly opened ears.
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