You may not have known that the list of potentate-composers included Tsar Ivan IV of Russia, known as Ivan the Terrible. But despite his negative sobriquet, the man who assembled the nucleus of the modern Russian state was noted as a poet and composer during his reign from 1533 to 1584. The recordings here were made in 1989, and the first work, Sticheron: For the Death of Pyotr, Metropolitan of Moscow and All Russia, appeared at that time on what may have been the first compact disc recorded in the Soviet Union, along with an orchestral setting of Ivan's text by Rodion Shchedrin. The other sticheron and the two readings from Ivan's letters were not released until this album appeared in 2010. The album's booklet summarizes the contents of the texts but otherwise does little to explain to the newcomer what is being heard; it does not even explain the term sticheron, which denotes a liturgical hymn in the Orthodox church. Ivan's two examples are each about a half hour long and seem to narrate a story in great detail. The first, as the title suggests, memorializes a local cleric; the second commemorates the retreat of Uzbek conqueror Tamerlane at the gates of Moscow nearly two centuries before. The chants are sung by a male quartet under the direction of Igor Voronov; the men sing in octaves, and at times descend to the buzzing low notes that make Russian choirs such a pleasure to hear. But otherwise, for the novice at least, the setting is spare compared with Western chant. There is little repetition, and little variation between syllabic and melismatic text treatment. Since only speakers of Old Church Slavonic are going to understand what is being sung anyhow, an hour of the music may be a lot for listeners unfamiliar with the tradition. But the album presents a side of the great Russian leader unfamiliar to those who know him only from historical summaries or Sergei Eisenstein's epic biopic.
AllMusic Review by James Manheim
|Fragment of Ivan IV the Terrible's letter to Prince Andrei Kurbsky|