WORKS: The Sealed Angel
PERFORMER: Choir of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge/Geoffrey Webber; Choir of King’s College London/David Trendell; Clare Wills (oboe)
CATALOGUE NO: DCD 34067
When Shchedrin grew up in Stalinist Russia, religious texts were forbidden. Even great works by the likes of Bach and Haydn were supplied with new words by turgid Socialist-Realist poets. It’s not that long since such restrictions were still in place: for example, some of Pärt’s early works were given ‘official’ titles to conceal their private devotional meaning.
The Sealed Angel derives from a story by Nikolay Leskov about peasant craftsmen, who illicitly preserve an ancient icon. By the time it was premiered in June 1988, the Soviet regime had liberalised significantly. The overtly religious text was permitted, but implied criticisms of the government still had to be camouflaged. Shchedrin intended sections of Leskov’s novella to be read between the nine anthems. These are omitted here, presumably because of time constraints, and any political criticism will be unclear to Western listeners.
Sung with clarity and sensitivity by the two choirs, this beautiful, impressive piece easily bears comparison with works that Shchedrin admires, like Rachmaninov’s Vespers. Though it has many modern elements, it is deeply rooted in the Orthodox choral tradition and Russian folk-music. The instrumental part for ‘shepherd’s pipe’, usually played by flute, is here taken by oboe, played affectingly by Clare Wills. Barry Witherden