Tenebrae / Nigel Short

Prayers for Mankind

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The subtitle of Russian-British composer Alexander Levine's Prayers for Mankind is "A Symphony of Prayers of Father Alexander Men." In six contrasting movements lasting well over an hour, the designation of symphony is not inappropriate, even though the scoring is for a cappella chorus. The texts are taken from devotional writings by Father Alexander Men, an Orthodox priest, theologian, and biblical scholar who was assassinated in 1990 and has come to be revered as a saint. They are intensely, almost excruciatingly intimate prayers, the majority written as personal reflections, with only two sections possibly intended for public, collective use. Hearing such private self-exposure declaimed grandly and dramatically by a choral group almost comes across as unseemly, and can cause the kind of squirminess one might feel when overhearing a too-intimate conversation. This might be an issue for English speakers because Levine uses a translation of the texts rather than the original Russian.

Levine uses the warm, lushly chromatic harmonic language typical of much late 20th and 21st century choral music, but it is also easy to hear the influence of Orthodox liturgical chant. It's an immensely appealing choral sound. The music seems so text-driven and so much of the text uses litany-like repetitive patterns that a coherent sense of musical development is often difficult to discern. That may not be a problem for listeners who are able to meditatively drift from moment to moment, but others looking for more of a sense of purposeful direction may be unconvinced by the meandering quality of much of the music.

The mixed choir, Tenebrae, expertly led by Nigel Short, delivers the kind of exceptionally disciplined and spirited performance for which it is rightly renowned. The burnished warmth of the choral blend and the absolute clarity and purity of the sound continue to amaze. The album is beautifully engineered, with crystalline sound that has just the right presence and ambience for this contemplative piece.

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