The Optina Pustyn
Male Choir of St. Petersburg,
Orthodox Chants from Russia
(ARC, 2003)

The buzz over the release of the 1994 CD Chant has died down, but interest in this type of music has persisted. The "chants" on this CD are much different than the Gregorian type that listeners may be familiar with. The music here ranges from what could be called ancient to 19th century.

This CD is unusual because it presents music that is used today inside Orthodox monasteries instead of the usual recordings of parish liturgies. It does not attempt to approximate an entire service, since services in monasteries are sometimes several hours long. However, the musical director does not hesitate to include some of the longer chants (for instance, two sets of psalms that weigh in at over eight minutes each) that create the atmosphere of a monastic service.

Since the chants are from different periods, some are sung with the voices in unison and others use polyphony. One vesper hymn, "Now Lettest Thou Thy Servant Depart," sounds much like 19th-century romantic choral music.

The Optina Pustyn Male Choir consists of six to nine professional musicians trained at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. The choir tours and has produced five CDs to date, but they are also part of the regular monastic choir at the Optina Pustyn Monastery in St. Petersburg.

Many of the chants are led by solo cantors. This role is taken by different choir members at different times. In some of the cuts, they sing a line of a psalm, which is then repeated by the choir. At other points, the cantor will chant verses of a psalm or prayer, while the others sing a repeating phrase such as "hallelujah." The choir also sings together without a cantor.

"The Great Litany," a prayer which begins all Orthodox services, features responsorial chant, with the choir answering "Lord, have mercy" to the cantor's petitions. Some chants feature a rumbling basso profundo ... a typically Slavic deep bass voice.

The purpose of this music is to quiet the mind and remove extraneous thoughts so that the listener can draw closer to God. The effect will not be as intense for a home listener who is not surrounded by candles, icons and clouds of incense, but this music does have a calming effect. It communicates a sense of mystery since it is in Old Church Slavonic, much as the old Latin words of the Mass did for Catholics. And the music, which offers a greater variation than CDs that only feature one type of chant, can be appreciated simply for its beauty.

Orthodox Chants from Russia recorded in Our Lady's Assumption Cathedral is the real thing ... not just a concert performance.

- Rambles
written by Dave Howell
(with assistance from Laura Howell)
published 29 May 2004