Collection: Liturgies

COMPOSERS: Various
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: Orthodox liturgical music
PERFORMER: Various choirs
CATALOGUE NO: 2908124-27

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It’s not just the majors who are at it: everybody’s harvesting their archives these days, using old recordings as a cash crop – and it’s often hard to tell at first glance just what we’re being offered. Take these two budget sets from Harmonia Mundi, for instance: La Passion and Liturgies – three- and four-CD sets each held together with a glossy cardboard sleeve. La Passion offers us a musical tour of the crucifixion, beginning with Charpentier’s Leçons de ténèbres – settings for Holy Week.

Then Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu nostri contemplates the body of the crucified Christ in seven cantatas, taking us from feet to face over a full week, and finally there’s Schütz’s History of the Resurrection, sometimes described as the first German oratorio. Originally these would have posed a marketing conundrum: most people buy Couperin’s Leçons de ténèbres not Charpentier’s; the Buxtehude had a superb recent recording from The Sixteen; and everyone buys Bach oratorios, not Schütz.

But there’s some very beautiful music here, so why not pull the three together, give them a title that taps into the ‘new spirituality’ that has been shifting shed-loads of Pärt and Tavener, and a price that puts the set straight into the impulse-buy category? Smart thinking. Performances? René Jacobs and Concerto Vocale sound stiff in the Charpentier in 1979, but ten years later, with the likes of Maria Cristina Kiehr and Andreas Scholl among the soloists, the singing all sounds much smoother and more assured, and it’s easy to recommend these other two discs.

Liturgies… well, if you have a passion for Eastern and Orthodox sacred music, then this is a must. It reveals very varied styles, though, starting with the Rybine Choir from Kiev in 150 years of Russian and Bulgarian Orthodox music, from Bortnyansky in the late 18th century to Gretchaninov in the mid-20th. These are essentially concert performances, with the right kind of voices but no whiff of incense, unlike the earliest of these four recordings, from the Benedictine monastery of Chevotogne in Belgium.

They have two churches there, one of which is dedicated to the Byzantine liturgy, and there’s no faking this kind of authenticity; you know these men live with this music on a daily basis, even if they are thousands of miles from the source, Constantinople. It is where St John Chrysostom was bishop, and where he reformed the Orthodox liturgy. His legacy is celebrated by the Chorale Sofia with its unmistakable Eastern timbre, and a beautifully atmospheric recording.

The fourth CD is the real find, though, for anyone who hasn’t previously discovered Sister Marie Keyrouz. She’s a cantor from the Lebanon, who has managed to hang on to her Eastern vocal techniques and tuning as she performs Byzantine chant for Holy Week, in Greek and Arabic, over the steady drone of the choir from the Melkite Church of St Julien-le-Pauvre in Paris, just across the Seine from Notre Dame.

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Beautiful sounds – I just wish there was more about the traditions and the music in all four booklets, and you only get the complete texts in one of them. Still, for £15 this set is fascinating. Yes – to a certain extent you’ve been ‘lifestyled’, but you can always throw the outer sleeve away and no one need know.