“Synthesis…was my starting point.” So writes composer and choir director Benedict Sheehan in his liner notes to Benedict Sheehan: Vespers, the outstanding new album from the Saint Tikhon Choir and Cappella Records. Steeped in the Orthodox liturgical tradition, Sheehan conducts a choir founded in 2015 to “foster and build up the American Orthodox choral tradition at the highest artistic level.”
His Vespers synthesizes traditional Russian Orthodox chants and melodies with exceptional multi-part choral writing. With this hourlong 13-part recording, Sheehan and the Saint Tikhon Choir make a tremendous contribution not merely to the Orthodox musical repertoire but to American choral music writ large.
Choral settings of Vespers (the evening office of the Orthodox church) are nothing new. In fact, the composer took particular inspiration from Rachmaninoff’s 1915 setting, the All-Night Vigil. (Bach’s Cantatas provide a more familiar context for extended liturgical choral music.) Sheehan integrates melodies and rhythms from traditional Vespers psalms and prayers, Byzantine Chant motifs, and Russian Common Chant with his own distinct (and distinctly American) style.
The choral and solo writing is strikingly beautiful and emotionally gripping. Listeners need not have any knowledge of the Orthodox church to get swept up in this music.
It features transcendent harmonies and sublime solo voices. The latter range from soprano Fotina Naumenko (“O Gladsome Light”) and countertenor Timothy Parsons (“The Lord Is King | Psalm 92”) to the astoundingly deep-voiced Glenn Miller (“The Song of Simeon”).
The liner notes provide a solid introduction to the Orthodox liturgical tradition and Sheehan’s engagement with it – right down to where individual chants originated. The “Opening Psalm | Psalm 103,” for example, is “based on a bold and lively irregular meter chant from the ancient Vaalam Monastery, founded in the 14th century in Karelia [a region today divided between Russia and Finland] on the shores of Lake Ladoga.”
The recording is clean, balanced, and dimensional, like the other Cappella Records releases I’ve reviewed – Hymns of Kassianí and Lost Voices of Hagia Sophia. Listen with good headphones or on a high quality stereo system to experience the full richness. Benedict Sheehan: Vespers is a rich treat for the ear and for the mind. I can’t recommend it highly enough for anyone with a love of choral music or an interest in liturgical music.