The 2-disc deluxe set features both CD and PureAudio Blu-ray™ media with high-resolution 2.0 Stereo and 5.0 Surround versions (DSM192K/24bit), recorded in DSD and downloadable to audio servers and devices. The Blu ray™ also contains three video performances: two concert selections from the world première performance and the complete liturgical première sung at St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral in Washington, DC. The accompanying booklet provides an extensive essay by the composer, the full text of the Divine Liturgy, and beautiful photography.
Listening Notes by Mark Powell
While building on the traditions of sacred Russian choral music, Sheehan’s new Liturgy in English is harmonically and structurally more adventurous than those by predecessors such as Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. The professional singers of The Saint Tikhon Choir masterfully handle this virtuoso score with clarity of tone, purity of expression, and power in reserve.
The composition reveals its roots in the Russian tradition with the deliberate “orchestration” of the voices, especially in the doubling of high and low voices singing in octaves, common to the Moscow Synodal School. The work’s power is likewise reinforced by the presence throughout of a clearly perceptible melodic theme that unites the work organically. Sheehan also employs techniques reminiscent of Arvo Pärt’s music: profoundly affecting textures built on disciplined triadic and step-wise melody.
The opening Psalms of the Liturgy’s Antiphons are set for double choir, one of high voices, and the other low, recalling the polychoral music from San Marco in Venice by Monteverdi, the Gabrielis, and Schütz. The Psalms were translated compassionately by the composer’s late father, a poet and professor of literature, to whom the work is dedicated. Unlike the Slavic style of Psalm singing at breakneck speed, Sheehan takes his time with certain verses to highlight their deeply personal implications.
Sheehan composed all of the chants in full for priest and deacon, ensuring perfect symphony with the choral responses that accompany them. Baritone Michael Hawes intones the priest’s chants with loving conviction, matched with bass Jason Thoms singing the deacon’s petitions with dignity and authority. The stellar countertenor Timothy Parsons figures prominently as soloist in the last large movement.
Like the Eucharistic services of the West, the Byzantine Divine Liturgy is divided into two sections: the first made up of Psalms and readings, and the second, the service of Holy Communion, or Eucharist. In today’s Byzantine rite, the pivot point between these sections is the Cherubic Hymn, typically a long, meditative work designed to evoke the heavenly realm into which the assembly is about to enter.
There may be no other setting of the Cherubic Hymn quite like that in Sheehan’s Liturgy. Had it been set for string orchestra, Sheehan’s could have been a symphonic Adagio by Gustav Mahler, with its slow unfolding of musical themes, cascading suspensions, imperfect cadences, and the complete avoidance of final tonal resolution or release until its close—and even then the music suggests that there is more to come.
Sheehan’s communion verse “Praise the Lord from the Heavens, Alleluia” 1) sets Psalm 148 in its entirety and 2) is effectively a vocal concerto for countertenor and double chorus, both aspects unprecedented in the Orthodox choral repertoire. Written for the virtuoso countertenor Timothy Parsons, recently a layclerk at Christ Church, Oxford (UK), it exploits the fullest range of Parsons’ powerful and authoritative voice that reaches an impressive high E at the consummation of this beautiful movement.
The ending movements following Holy Communion, expressing thanks and joy, are in the bright key of E major. Sheehan’s exuberant setting of “Blessed be the name of the Lord, henceforth and for evermore” leaves no doubt in this writer that the whole work has been a journey, a pilgrimage into a transcendent realm.
Sheehan’s music seems to transfigure the words of the Liturgy into doors to eternity for those willing to open them, setting the listener—regardless of background— on a musical and spiritual pilgrimage of discovery.
Mark Powell is executive director of Cappella Romana and Cappella Records. Cappella Records is distributed by Naxos USA.
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