Alexander Grechaninov is known to some lucky listeners as one of the most effective composers of Eastern Orthodox-styled church music for unaccompanied voices to come out of the post-Romantic period. Grechaninov's Liturgies of St. John Chrysostom, Opp. 13 and 29, contain some of the most moving and spiritually prescient music to be found on the other side of Rachmaninoff's Vespers, Op. 37. Even to those who know of Grechaninov's liturgical settings, his Passion Week, Op. 58, will come as a bit of a surprise. Composed on 13 Old Slavonic texts used during Holy Week services, Passion Week isn't a liturgical work at all but an independent set of choruses in which Grechaninov is simply stretching out in his choral writing without having to stay true to the strictures of the Eastern Orthodox service; these works are designed for concert performance by an expert choir. Perhaps that is one reason why they are so obscure; performed once in St. Petersburg under the composer in 1913, they weren't heard again until the 1990s. Grechaninov sought to "exhaust all the technical means which the unaccompanied chorus can render" in this work, and while he certainly doesn't resort to new music techniques, such as clapping, hiccupping, or jingling one's pocket change, in terms of range, dynamics, and ensemble expression within conventional tonality, Passion Week really pushes the envelope. Grechaninov's choral writing is almost symphonic in its sound and range and the sheer fluidity of approach to his rhythm, most of it at an extremely slow tempo, is itself breathtaking.
In this first-ever complete recording of Grechaninov's Passion Week, Chandos has pressed into service the mighty Kansas City Chorale, augmented by the Phoenix Bach Choir, in movements for double chorus and presumably elsewhere in this virtuoso work as well. Recorded at the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in Kansas City, this Direct Stream Digital Super Audio CD simply has marvelous sound that reproduces the very breath of the farthest chorister. Bassists singing pitches as low as a "low D" can clearly be heard, not just sensed, in the recording. There are no stray noises to distract from Grechaninov's central message, although there are tiny shifts of the overall sense of pitch here and there -- at least everyone shifts that way together. This is to be expected in a cappella choral music of such great harmonic richness, wide compasses of range, and long-held pitches. Chandos' Grechaninov: Passion Week, Op. 58, is a slam-dunk for those who love great choral music; it is a major addition to the recorded repertoire for chorus and is a telling example of what "high holy minimalism" sounds like when it isn't minimal.