State Choir Latvija / Máris Sirmais

Rodion Shchedrin: The Sealed Angel

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Rodion Shchedrin considered his 1988 The Sealed Angel, a setting appropriate for use in the Orthodox liturgy, to be in the tradition of the Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov versions of The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. But because of Soviet restrictions on religious expression, he took its title and theme from a short story by Nikolai Leskov, a precaution that made its performance possible in the Soviet Union, and in 1992 it even won the State Prize of Russia for new music. However, it is actually a profoundly religious work, with spiritual as well as musical roots in the liturgies of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, which in turn were grounded in ancient choral traditions of the Orthodox Church. The tone of most of the work is one of reverent mystery, and although it is clearly a work of its own time, and its richly chromatic, lyrical language is not far from that of Rachmaninov. It is a cappella except for the occasional appearance of a single flute, meant to replicate the haunted, evocative sound of a Russian shepherd's flute. State Choir Latvia, conducted by Máris Sirmais, gives the work a superlative performance, singing with great nuance, an exceptionally warm blend, and an expansive expressive range. After hearing the choir sing the piece in 2009 in what he described as a definitive performance, the composer began to push to have the recording commercially released. The live recording beautifully captures the depth and color of the choir's performance and it is ideally resonant and ambient, but there are ongoing low-level ancillary noises that are loud enough to be distracting in what is often a very quiet work. That reservation aside, this is a stellar performance of an immensely appealing piece that should be of interest to fans of lush choral singing.

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