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CD Review

Alexander Grechaninov

  • Symphony #5
  • Missa oecumenica
Tatiana Sharova, soprano
Ludmila Kuznetsova, mezzo-soprano
Oleg Dolgov, tenor
Dmitry Fadeyev, bass
Margarita Koroleva, organ
Russian State Symphony Orchestra and Symphonic Cappella/Valery Polyansky
Chandos CHAN9845 DDD 79:16
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Alexander Grechaninov was one of the last Russian composers to embrace Romanticism. (Sergei Rachmaninoff would be another.) He died in 1956, and the works on this CD were composed as late as 1936, but one searches in vain for more than just the faintest trace of modernism in this music. This is the fifth CD in a Grechaninov series from Chandos. All have featured conductor Polyansky with the present orchestra and chorus, and all have contained a symphony and a sacred work for chorus. Most of these have been première recordings, as is the case with this disc.

The Missa oecumenica, first performed by Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, is tremendously appealing. Grechaninov hoped to write a mass that would speak to all members of the Christian faith, regardless of their nationality and traditions. As a result, the Missa oecumenica embraces many musical styles; sometimes it sounds like Haydn, sometimes it sounds like Berlioz, and sometimes it sounds like Poulenc. The "Credo" is dominated by a catchy toe-tapping melody, and the "Benedictus" has the grace one would find in one of Tchaikovsky's suites. In contrast, the "Sanctus," with its parallel chords for mixed chorus, would not be out of place in a Russian Orthodox Church in the 19th century. Grechaninov's melodic gifts quickly become apparent, and his academic credentials follow along – for example, in the fugue at "Dona nobis pacem." In short, there's something for everyone in this mass, which in spite of its imposing moments is essentially sweet. The Russian State Symphonic Cappella sings impressively, and the quartet of young Russian soloists, while fruity in tone, is good as well.

Grechaninov's last symphony ignores the storm clouds that were gathering over Europe in 1936. Although it is not frivolous (the second movement is built around what sounds like a funeral march), it cannot hide its essential optimism, which becomes explicit in the finale. The symphony's model might have been Borodin's Second Symphony, down to the hammering motto that opens the work. Its themes are not as memorable as those in Borodin's symphony, but if it was good enough for Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1939, it is good enough for me, and it seems incredible that it has not been recorded until now. (That comment goes double for the Missa oecumenica.)

Polyansky's many recordings of the Russian literature, both familiar and obscure, have revealed a Järvi-like adaptability. Polyansky, however, is a more exciting conductor than his Estonian elder. He has built the Russian State Symphony Orchestra into a dependable ensemble. At times, the strings are rough-toned in the symphony, but this is a minor complaint. Chandos intelligently recorded the Missa oecumenica in resonant space (the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory) and reserved the drier Mosfilm Studios for the symphony. Excellent booklet notes by Eric Roseberry seal the deal.

Copyright © 2001, Raymond Tuttle