Chesnokov's "Do Not Reject Me in My Old Age" Op. 40 No. 5
Pavel Chesnokov’s “Do Not Reject Me in My Old Age” / “Ne Otverzhi Mene” is a truly unique composition: a sacred concerto for chorus and bass-oktavist soloist. While it is somewhat common to find contra octave notes in the Russian choral repertoire, compositions for the oktavist soloist are still quite a rarity. Chesnokov's concerto has become perhaps the most quintessential item in the oktavist repertoire. Here, we will look at what makes this piece so compelling, and then move to examine its performance history.
Chesnokov had a love for the oktavist voice, remarking, “Composers today, as in former times, for some reason have not paid necessary attention to this mighty and effective element of the choir” (xxxi). He did not, however, let this enthusiasm run unbridled. He had a strict aesthetic vision for properly implementing the bass voice, and we can see these artistic principles carried out in both the form and content of his composition.
The sacred concerto takes its text from Psalm 71:
Do not reject me in my old age,
when my strength is spent, do not forsake me.
For my enemies speak concerning me, and those
who lie in wait to ambush my soul
conspire together and say:
“God has forsaken him;
pursue and seize him,
for there is none to deliver him.”
O my God, be not far from me,
O my God, make haste to help me.
May those who dishonour my soul
be put to shame and consumed!
For I will put my trust in thee for ever,
and will eternally praise thee (Trans. John Smith)
Voiced from the standpoint of an old man, this poignant prayer for deliverance finds a perfect home in the oktavist voice. The choice of text makes sense when we think on how the male voice often lowers with age, even continuing to darken and deepen into the later years of life. Though the content runs the risk of producing some irony when performed by younger profundi, in most cases the soloist’s extreme depth serves to augment the pathos of the aged speaker.
While Chesnokov clearly enjoyed the sound of the oktavist, he had strong opinions on just how to use this musical novelty. He writes:
These voices, though they are quite beautiful, are to some degree a luxury in a choir (though almost a necessary one). They must be utilized very carefully, that is, conservatively. When they are overused, the beauty of their sound will diminish, and will even become tiresome. (xxxi)
In this vein he laments that octave doubling is often used “without due consideration for the proper place and time” and so “it does not produce the effect that can be achieved when it is used skillfully” (xxxi). To avoid this, Chesnokov explains, “I mark all the places for the oktavists and absolutely forbid them to take liberties with their contra octave tones” (xxxi-xxxii). Thus, he saw that caution must be taken when using such extreme lows—for them to be effective requires careful artistry on the part of the composer.
It is interesting to see how Chesnokov approaches the distinctive challenge of writing for an oktavist soloist. He is surprisingly unflattering when characterizing the oktavist’s upper range, describing A2 to C3 as “heavy, unpleasant, hollow, coarse” and notes above that simply as “bad” (32). He summarizes: “The oktavist (basso profundo) sounds good only on notes lying on the ledger lines below the staff. It is rare to encounter a good sound on any of the notes above these” (32). The tessitura of “Do Not Reject” reflects these opinions, resting unusually low, even in the world of basso profundo repertoire.
We begin with a few ethereal chords from the chorus before the soloist enters on a low C. The choir gives the soloist ample room throughout the beginning of the piece. After these strenuous beginning measures the soloist has a brief rest while the rest of the singers reach a crescendo—then silence. Then the oktavist ventures even lower, singing out on an unexpected, sustained B flat, modulating to E flat minor.
After this fleeting modulation, the piece returns to C minor, briefly resting in the relative major in a moment of optimism before returning to its slow, brooding minor.
This is where things get interesting. The ending as Chesnokov originally wrote it descends to A flat, and then all the way down to contra G.
This score is enough to make even the most seasoned bass shudder. Projecting a low G over a choir is literally a nearly unheard of feat. Doing so after singing an entire piece littered with low Cs and B flats is even more rare. Thus, Chesnokov provides a second, optional ending:
In a composer's note at the bottom of the score, Chesnokov explains, "If the octavist does not have a contra G, the first ending should be omitted and the second ending should be used. The first ending, however, is preferred." Interestingly enough, only in recent years has anyone ventured to record Chesnokov's preferred ending. And this brings us to look at the performances of this interesting piece. Performances
What follows is not a strict performance history in that it is neither chronological nor exhaustive. We have little information on the performance history of this piece beyond the recordings that have been made, although anecdotes exist regarding various performances. Vladimir Miller writes, "In 1983, I first crossed the threshold of this esteemed institution (The Choir of St. Petersburg). I was 19 at the time and I could sing a good contra B flat. But my sound was then almost ethereal and weak. At this time there were seven basses in the choir who could sing this note without a problem. Soon I heard a live performance in a concert of Chesnokov's "Do not Forsake Me" where soloist Yuri Emashev sang the composer's first ending of the piece, a note of contra G!" Thus, although Chesnokov's ending has only recently been recorded, it has certainly been performed in past decades.
The late Vladimir Pasyukov recorded some of the most iconic performances of Chesnokov's sacred concerto. His dark, velvety timbre produces quite an amazing sound even over a large, mixed choir. Here he is performing the piece with the Saint Petersburg Chamber Choir under N. Korniev in 1990:
Pasyukov's delivery is heartfelt and confident. His voice is so commanding that I never checked the pitch of this performance until quite recently and was surprised to find it pitched up a half step to C sharp. For the record, Pasyukov has recorded this piece several times, sometimes in its original key, and once even transposed down to B minor. In contrast to Pasyukov's heavy, dark tone, we have Yuri Emashev performing with the Valaam Choir under Igor Ushakov in 1994.
In this recording, the piece has been adapted for male choir, which is a common practice. Although it is difficult to describe any oktavist voice as having a "light" timbre, Emashev's tone is certainly on the lighter side of the spectrum. His delivery actually reminds me of Mikhail Kruglov's with the Male Choir of Saint Petersburg under Afanasiev.
Though Kruglov's tone is not as heavy as Pasyukov's, like Emashev he navigates the lows of this piece with a commanding presence. Vladimir Miller has perhaps performed and recorded this piece more than any other profundo. Although he has not recorded the original ending, he has produced a myriad of stellar performances with a number of choirs, both male choirs and mixed choirs. Below is a recent (2014) performance with St. Petersburg State Academic Capella Choir under Vladislav Chernushenko.
Miller's performance is both emotional and virtuosic. He was one of the first oktavists I heard perform this piece, and his performances have remained some of my favorites.
Yuri Vishnyakov is another widely celebrated Russian oktavist, but it is difficult to find a recording of his singing Chesnokov's piece solo. A few years ago I finally ran across this recording, transposed up a half step with an unknown mixed choir.
Vishnyakov always surprises me with the brightness and color his voice gains when he moves into his upper range. This is obscured in the better-known recording with the Orthodox Singers under G. Smirnov.
G. Smirnov's arrangement for male choir with multiple soloists produces an amazing sound. Here we have Victor Kruchenkov, and Boris Chepikov singing with Vishnyakov, giving the soloist line a foghorn-like force. One of the more unusual things about this recording is the unusally slow pace and muted dynamics of the penultimate section of this piece. This produces the longest recorded performance, at just a little over seven minutes, and makes for a much more sombre interpretation. Smirnov follows Chesnokov's second ending, albeit leaving the soloists the opportunity to octave the low G.
Thus, while Kruchenkov and Chepikov remain on the G2, Vishnyakov drops to the G1. The effect is not quite that of the original ending: though the G is the lowest note in the performance, the most magical moment in this recording remains the overwhelming B flat, with its raw power. The contra G, though quite audible, has more the effect of ornamentation--in fact, I missed it the first few times I listened to this recording simply because the two soloists on the G2 make Vishnyakov's G1 less noticeable.
The St. Ephraim Male Choir has performed Smirnov's arrangement with great precision:
The above performance is quite remarkable in that though it is a live, non-professional recording, the sound is quite close to that of the Orthodox Singers' disc. Oktavists Domahidy and Sillo blend quite well--powerful yet rich. Like Vishnyakov, Domahidy drops to the G1 at the end while Sillo remains on G2. One of the leser-known recordings of this piece comes from Sergey Kochetov with vocal ensemble 'Rozhdestvo'.
Rozhdestvo performs in C sharp, but his dark voice gives the piece a majestic sound. Kochetov is also remarkable for his tender, unstrained delivery in the higher sections of this piece. Anatoly Artamanov, an oktavist I only learned of this year, has often performed Chesnokov's masterpiece with vocal ensemble 'Voskresenije' under Juri Maruk.
Artamanov's white-haired appearance lends an extra air of authenticity to this performance when coupled with his convincing lows.
An especially distinctive performance of this piece comes from Ukrainian bass Alexander Bondarenko.
Bondarenko's timbre is nearly as smooth and dark as Pasyukov's but what stands out about this performance is the liberty he takes with the score. Perhaps most remarkable is treatment of the B flat: instead of beginning directly on the note, he starts on Bb2 and then drops the octave to contra B flat. One will notice that of all the performances we have examined thus far, none of the soloists has sung Chesnokov's original ending. Andrey Kurilov was the first profundo I ever heard sing the preferred ending, though he transposed the piece to C sharp (making the lowest note a G#1) the results are breathtaking.
The descent to A and the G# transforms the weight of the piece, making the final moments the climax instead of the B flat. I have to say that I see why Chesnokov preferred this ending. There is a certain element of amazement this gives to the piece, as the soloist continually pushes his voice to greater and greater depths.
Interestingly enough, the first singer to record the original ending in its original key was American oktavist Glenn Miller. He first recorded this with the Illumni Men's Chorale, and the recording is due to be released sometime this year. A later recording with Conspirare under Craig Hella Johnson was released earlier this year, in February 2014.
Though this performance was recorded by an American choir and soloist, there is a certain orthodoxy about it: this performance closely adheres to Chesnokov's original score, using a mixed choir, one soloist, and the preferred ending. Miller's delivery is astounding: despite the grueling nature of the work, at no point does Glenn falter. The final A flat and G are sung with complete self-assurance and surprising power.
Lastly, I would like to end with two incomplete recordings. The first is an oktavist of a past generation: Nikolay Dmitriev.
Unfortunately we have very little of this wonderful basso. I researched him for quite a while and recently discovered why there are so few extant recordings of him: though Dmitriev's career was promising, he developed severe athritis in his thirties, causing him to retire from the stage and devote his life to teaching. Sadly, Nikolay Dmitriev passed away in 2012.
The second fragment features an oktavist of the next generation. Here we observe Sergey Kryzhnenko practicing Chesnokov in rehearsal:
Kryzhnenko's nuanced delivery is a pleasure to listen to, and I hope we will soon hear a studio recording of the complete piece from him.
I would just like to close by encouraging my readers to share their thoughts about Chesnokov's composition and these performances.
Chesnokov, Pavel. The Choir and How to Direct It: A Handbook for Choral Conductors. Translated from Russian by John C. Rommereim. San Diego, CA: Musica Russica, 2010.