I was kindly asked to review the latest CD release by Cappella Romana.
Perhaps one of the most difficult tasks is to review a subject whose qualities are so near perfection that words lose their meaning. How can I write “beautiful” when what I mean to indicate is the quality of Beauty herself, or “excellent” when I really mean to indicate true Excellence? The description is too much like the essence. On the one hand the reader will not believe me if I write plainly, but too many words will trivialize the subject.
This is the season of Lent in both the Christian East and West. Cappella Romana’s latest release, a compilation of tracks from past albums, seems fitting for the season: it contains several tracks of Lenten hymns (“Now the Powers of Heaven”, “Let All Mortal Flesh”) as well as suggestions of the coming Paschal joy (“As Many of You as Have Been Baptized”, “O Great and Most Sacred Pascha”). However, the album is called Angelic Light, and so the theme is universal and appropriate to all seasons. Listeners will notice there are four contrasting versions of the Cherubic Hymn. You can listen to one of them, Track 3, here.
For casual listeners, this album is an accessible introduction to the majesties of this sacred choral ensemble. It is the ideal accompaniment to a peaceful time of contemplation – perhaps during the drive to church.
For connoisseurs, it is the apotheosis of church music in both Eastern and Western styles. As an example of the height of its standards, Cappella Romana expects new recruits to be familiar with the following specializations: “Reading Byzantine or other chant notations at sight; familiarity with Greek or Slavonic; the employment of non-Western vocal timbres; understanding pre-modern Western mensural vocal timbres; the ability to apply historically and culturally appropriate forms of performance practice (tunings, ornamentation, musica ficta, etc.)” (from their website.) All of that and they must sing well too!
Some faithful listeners will recognize the Slavonic “O Tebe Raduyetsia” (All of Creation Rejoices) or the melody of the English-language Communion Hymn (Track 6). “Ikos Six, from the Akathistos Hymn” (the rather generic title of a Christmas hymn about “The Noble Joseph’s” doubt) is an excellent example of Eastern harmonies and ornamentation executed with Western sensibilities and polish. The final track is an exquisite Cherubic Hymn that seems to me to be suitable for a chamber choir, in contrast to much Orthodox music that is written for large, powerful ensembles.
In sum, Cappella Romana is a lighthouse on the horizon of sacred choral ensembles, and “Angelic Light” is a magnificent and timely compilation of their greatest recordings. I have no doubt that it will delight all who hear it.
You can order or download the album here.
Paul Graham Yates, Principal