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Clarion Choir Delves Into the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, a Rachmaninoff Rarity

To kick off 2015 a year ago, Trinity Wall Street presented a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Vespers by the Clarion Choir at St. Paul’s Chapel as part of its Twelfth Night Festival. Reviewing elsewhere that night, I couldn’t hear it, but to judge from all reports, the performance must have been stunning.

When I first glanced at the program for the current festival and saw that Rachmaninoff was again scheduled for New Year’s Eve at St. Paul’s, I simply assumed that it was the Vespers music, and that Trinity had established it as an annual fixture. As well it might have: Beautiful and grandly mystical, the work exudes a spiritual force that is deeply moving and restorative.

But no, weeks later I discovered that the work to be performed on Thursday was Rachmaninoff’s Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Written in 1910, five years before the Vespers, it is a work of similar scale, style and spirit, but unlike that composition, which has pretty much entered the standard repertory, the Liturgy is seldom performed except by specialist groups like the valuable Russian Chamber Chorus of New York.

So much the better, then, that Clarion branched out. And its performance, with 26 strong singers led by the group’s artistic director, Steven Fox, was indeed stunning.

Written for use in an actual service, the Liturgy has parts for a deacon, typically leading long litanies in a monotone chant, and freer parts for the celebrant. As is usually done in stage performance, Mr. Fox cut back some passages “tailor-made for a service,” according to a booklet note, “but which make less sense in the context of a concert performance.”

As the deacon, the bass Philip Cutlip was wonderfully solid and, in a properly understated way, expressive. As the celebrant, the tenor Marc Andrew Day had greater freedom to soar, and his lines did so thrillingly. And the soprano Sherezade Panthaki sang a brief solo most attractively.

All were also members of the superb chorus, which had obviously been finely drilled by Mr. Fox and well schooled in the pronunciation of Church Slavonic, presumably by a diction coach not identified. (If it was Mr. Fox, the more power to him.)

You have to hope that with this presentation, Clarion has opened the way to a different kind of annual tradition: exploring the Russian liturgical repertory more broadly, perhaps starting with Tchaikovsky’s Vespers and Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom and continuing with the revelatory “Passion Week” of Maximilian Steinberg, which Clarion helped to unearth. And there is much more worthy repertory where all of that came from.

JAMES R. OESTREICH, The New York Times
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