• Jay Fleming

Review: 'Music of Russia' by the Illumni Men's Chorale

The Illumni Men’s Chorale’s recent release, Music of Russia, is one of the more remarkable recordings in the world of oktavism. Artistic Director Christopher McCafferty and Resident Scholar Steven Clark have put together a remarkable program of music, full of classics from both the sacred and secular traditions of Russia. The Illumni Men’s Chorale performs this demanding repertoire excellently. The choir’s overall range is formidable, featuring oktavists down to G1 and countertenors up to A6, bringing to mind the diverse voices of choirs like Jaroff’s Don Cossacks.

The disc’s first section, “Life, Birth, Death, and Rebirth,” explores the music of the Russian Orthodox Church. We begin with Goncharov’s “Krestu Tvoyemu,” which prominently features choir’s oktavists. You may view a video of Illumni’s performance here:

Oktavists Don Neptun, Greg Golliet, and Glenn Miller demonstrate their astounding ability, adroitly balanced with the stunning crescendos from the tenors. They take the contra G on the penultimate chord without problem—a truly rare note, even in the world of Russian choirs. (It should be noted Illumni's basses J Scott Kovacs, Jim Fellows, and Dalton Shotwell also posses low ranges down to low C and below, in the range of Chesnokov's designation of strong/deep basses.) Another highlight from the sacred portion of this disc is Chesnokov’s sacred concerto for basso profundo, “Ne Otverzhi Mene” / “Do Not Forsake Me in My Old Age.” [Click here to read the blog post about this unique composition.] Guest soloist Glenn Miller shines here, this performance being the first time the original ending has ever been recorded. (Although Miller’s recording with Conspirare recording was released earlier, Illumni’s was actually recorded first.) This astoundingly demanding composition presents difficulty for even the lowest oktavists, but Miller is one of the few who actually sounds comfortable singing it, even with the challenging optimal descent to G1. Illumni’s performance offers a beautiful contrast to Conspirare’s. While the Conspirare version is a wonderfully polished studio recording, Illumni’s has the electricity of a live concert, and the listener can hear how Glenn’s voice resonates in Larquerquist Hall, the space echoing back his power and volume. Illumni’s male voices make for a dark, brooding sound, in contrast to the ethereal tones of Conspirare, a mixed choir.

Chesnokov’s ‘Memorial Service’ is another high point of the sacred compositions. Here the choir’s soloists get a chance to shine during the exclamations. For the bass enthusiast, Glenn Miller stands out again, with a comfortable drop to contra G during the deacon’s exclamation. The sacred portion of the disc draws to a close with a beautiful juxtaposition with work from its earliest composer (Nikolai Diletsky, b. 1630) and its most recent (Steven Clark, b. 1955). “Plotiyu” / “In the Flesh,” is the striking new composition from Clark, Illumni’s Resident Scholar. The first movement was composed especially for Illumni, as is evident by its final descent to contra G.

The second half of this disc is devoted to Russia's rich folk tradition. The oktavist section is brilliantly featured again, most remarkably on Georgy Smirnov’s arrangement of “Eh, Ukhnem!” The tenors, however, steal the show in the final track, “Kalinka,” with the soaring solos of Nicholas Pharris, Charles Logan, and Christopher McCafferty. The second half of the album confirms both the singers and conductors have a firm grasp of the fundamental emotion behind these songs: this is not an American choir mechanically performing foreign repertoire, but rather an ensemble that has drunk deeply of the Russian essence and is thus able to offer a performance that brings in the full range of emotion--somber, poignant, vibrant.

Overall, Illumni’s project is an immense success and a must-have album for any connoisseur of the oktavist tradition. Not since Georgy Smirnov’s Basso Profondo from Old Russia has any album featured the oktavist voice so centrally. The profound effect of this disc goes further, however, than the mere depths of its basses: Illumni truly captures the Russian spirit in a way few Western choirs have.

You may purchase Music of Russia by the Illumni Men’s Chorale here.


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