If this were new, it would be startling, coming after the catalog of Renaissance polyphony on this label. But it’s a re-issue from a 1982 LP, and the group had a less monolithic identity at the time. The program includes Stravinsky’s Pater noster and Ave Maria, Rachmaninov’s Pater noster, something by Bortniansky (sung in English), and a long piece composed in English by John Tavener. Oh, yes, also a piece of church music by Ivan the Terrible!
But all of this is the least interesting part of the program. The earlier, anonymous music is the real splendour of the disc, all the more effective on CD. There are a half a dozen ‘medieval motets’ in a kind of three-part descant marked by one voice above and one voice below the melody. These pieces date from about the fifteenth century, a time of Tatar domination which cut off the Russians from any contact with musical developments in the West. These six pieces are surrounded by two later motets, one for twelve parts and one for eight. This Gabrieli-like sound resulted from the Russian conquest of the Ukraine, which exposed the Russian church to a musical style contaminated under Polish rule by exposure to Baroque polyphony.
The English ensemble has a strong sympathy for this music, even if the sound of one voice to a part is not the rich, massed Russian choral sound. Very interesting, very well done.