Archangel Voices is an Orthodox vocal ensemble that specializes in liturgical choral repertoire by present-day composer, particularly focusing on English-language settings (either composed for English texts or adaptations of existing settings for English). Their Artistic Director is Dr. Vladimir Morosan, a scholar of Russian Orthodox choral music in particular (he is the translator of Johann von Gardner’s venerable series Russian Church Singing, volume 1 and volume 2, he has his own monograph on Russian church choirs right before the Revolution, and he has published several critical and performing editions of Russian choral repertoire), and an advocate of Orthodox liturgical music more generally.
Archangel Voices is one of the outlets for Morosan’s advocacy, and Panagia: Orthodox Hymns to the Mother of God is their sixth release on disc. The intent of the recording is to represent the vast diversity of Orthodox hymnody about the Mother of God — hymns from the daily cycle of services as well as the Marian feasts, special services, and also para-liturgical compositions. There is not only a rich collection of hymns but also composers; there are many Slavic composers such as Chesnokov and Bortniansky presented here, as well as composers active in present-day North America, such as Benedict Sheehan, Morosan himself, and Psalm 103 project composers Richard Toensing and Kurt Sander.
This CD is a different kind of aesthetic than that of some of the other recordings of Orthodox music that are out there. Cappella Romana’s approach is to do a variety of repertoire, make informed stylistic choices for the performance, and be as consistent with those stylistic choices as it can — an “early music” approach, if you like. Kurt Sander’s As Far as the East is from the West sought to reproduce the aesthetic of a large parish choir in a Russian choir loft. Holy Cross’ recent release was simply the sound of their chapel services transferred to disc. Samir Cohlmia’s recording of Dormition chants captures the aural experience of the Byzantine cantor as soloist. And so on. Archangel Voices does something a little different; rather than model themselves on a particular existing Orthodox musical aesthetic or attempt to be stylistic chameleons, they are more along the lines of a Western-style chamber chorale, made up of well-trained musicians who are flexible enough to sing pretty much whatever is put in front of them and make it sound good with a consistent, well-blended, shimmery, warm sound. Perhaps one could argue that Archangel Voices represents one model of what a good American parish choir could be; good enough musicians to sing virtually anything as themselves instead of trying to sound like something else.
It’s an approach that certainly does sufficient justice to most of the repertoire on this disc; particularly nice from the Slavic selections are Chesnokov’s general canon to the Mother of God, Nikolsky’s Megalynarion for Pascha (I am thankful to Morosan and co. that they opted for something less overdone than Balakirev’s setting, which is generally treated out here in the Midwest as the national anthem of American Orthodoxy), and Lvovsky’s Exaposteilarion for the Dormition. In general, I will say that the North American composers who are writing for the English language tend to stand out a little better; perhaps it is not surprising that music written for and sung in the same language sounds better than adaptations. Among this group, Morosan’s Koinonikon for Marian feasts, Nazo Zakkak’s setting of “I have thee as a fountain” from the Paraklesis service, Sander’s Megalynarion for the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil, and Toensing’s setting of “Awed by the beauty” from the Third Mode kathismata are all particularly lovely.
The recording isn’t completely flawless; there are a handful of moments that are a touch rough-feeling, where the ensemble doesn’t quite shimmer as much as they normally do. The ornaments on the ubiquitous paraliturgical Georgian hymn “O Vineyard, fair and new” don’t work as sung; they’re a mismatch with the style the choir employs otherwise, and as a result they sound like mistakes and baubles rather than specific ornamentation choices. To the extent that there’s a pastoral model here for choirs, I would suggest that the lesson here is, ornaments need to be treated as organic parts of a chosen style, not merely additional notes to be sung; if that’s not a practical or pastoral possibility, then it is an acceptable choice to leave the ornaments out. Also, given the ensemble’s stated objective in the booklet “to embrace various traditions and styles of Orthodox church music as they are manifest in the practice of parishes in North America”, it seems like something of a missed opportunity to not include any of the Greek-American composers who have written Orthodox choral music in English, or to use any of the growing library of settings of Byzantine chant composed for English (polyphonic adaptations of what are already themselves adaptations of Byzantine melodies aren’t really the same thing). Sometimes “pan-Orthodox” appears to mean, in practice, “everybody but the Greeks”, and opportunities like this would seem to be appropriate settings for trying to combat that. Alas; I’m sure there are reasons for such choices.
These are minor issues; Panagia is a high-quality effort overall from a high-quality ensemble, and very much worth checking out.