Fanfare Magazine Reviews Benedict Sheehan’s Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom

Alongside a must-read interview with Benedict Sheehan, Fanfare Magazine’s March/April 2021 Issue features THREE reviews of his Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom recording with the St. Tikhon Choir on Cappella Records:

James A. Altena:

“I own a goodly number of settings of the Liturgy by various composers—Chesnokov, Grechaninov, Ippolitov-Ivanov, Kastalsky, Rachmaninoff, Shvedov, Stoyanov, and Tchaikovsky—but not one of them sustains without surcease the atmosphere and spirit of radiant, exultant joy that Sheehan so masterfully accomplishes here. Even in the most quiet and deeply meditative sections, such as the Hymn of Justinian, “Only Begotten Son,” that sense of ethereal rapture is pervasive. Sheehan also has a very distinctive harmonic and stylistic footprint that immediately sets him apart as an individual voice, and yet is fully within the traditional ambit of Russian Orthodoxy, even with the innovative touches noted in the accompanying interview. … the Saint Tikhon Choir under the composer’s direction is simply beyond praise for excellence (including some superb basso profundos). The recorded sound of the CD is exquisite in warmth and amplitude; the booklet provides extensive notes by the composer, the complete text of the liturgy, artist bios (including the complete choir roster), and photos. … The CD alone would make this release a must-have; the accompanying Blu-ray disc is even more of a knock-out. First there come the world premiere performances of two movements from the Liturgy, recorded at St. Stephen’s Pro-Cathedral (Episcopal) in Wilkes-Barre, PA. That is followed by the premiere live performance of the entire setting as part of a primatial liturgy celebrated at St. Nicholas Cathedral (Orthodox Church in America) in Washington, DC by Metropolitan Tikhon. The church is visually stunning; I was particularly intrigued by the use of some non-traditional colors (e.g., a lovely forest green) in some of the ikons. And, as a non-Orthodox Christian who has nonetheless attended many celebrations of the liturgy, I personally found the filming of the complete primatial rite to be entirely engrossing. … My draft 2021 Want List is beginning to burst at the seams, but this release is definitely a major contender. If you were to have only one recording of the Orthodox liturgy in your collection, I would unhesitatingly recommend that this be it; urgently, glowingly recommended.”

—James A. Altena

Daniel Morrison

“the music Sheehan has created for this Liturgy is of extraordinary beauty, depth of feeling, and spiritual exaltation. Although it sometimes rises to the heights of ecstasy, the predominant mood, conveyed by beautiful, gently undulating melodic lines, is one of serenity and contemplation, permeated by a sense of awe and otherworldly mystery. As one would expect from his background and experience, Sheehan’s handling of choral writing is expert, but it is also inspired. I am at a loss to pick out individual numbers as highlights because there are so many of them. … while the CD is quite good, the stereo Blu-ray sound predictably offers greater spaciousness, clarity, definition, and color. … the Saint Tikhon Choir sings beautifully, with luminous, blended tone, excellent intonation, and deep commitment. There is in their renditions an intensely devotional quality that I have noticed as well in other religiously affiliated choruses, such as Gloriæ Dei Cantores and those of PaTRAM, a quality that derives from profound belief in the message of the music and words they are singing. One senses that they are not just performing music but also engaging in an act of worship. 

In his notes for this release, Benedict Sheehan writes that he offers this music “for the enjoyment and consolation of every soul.” I found both of these in his beautiful and moving work.”

—Daniel Morrison

Colin Clarke

“One can hear sincerity and belief in music regardless of one’s own beliefs, and that in itself can become a spiritual and transformative experience. Certainly, that is the case here, as the radiance of Benedict Sheehan’s piece is beyond doubt. … The performances do the seemingly impossible: they bring the liturgy to vibrant, immediate life while referencing, upholding, and above all respecting the tradition they represent and, in the very act of performance itself, prolong. The choral sound is lush and impeccably balanced, solo contributions confident, forthright, and ever spiritual. Regarding format, there is one performance on compact disc (disc one); the second is a Blu-ray of that recorded performance plus the premieres of two short hymns from the Liturgy and the liturgical premiere of the complete Liturgy. …

The choir certainly has the sound required, including basses that could easily have been shipped across from Saint Petersburg, so earth-tremblingly grounding are they. Some techniques are taken across from this music’s rich history: the use of double choir is one such. One can identify influences from Schütz to Pärt, and to do so underscores the historical lineage; but one has to remember the freshness of the now that is a vital part of this music also.…

The music’s warmth and, above all, its assurance that what the performers sing is true is remarkable. The idea of a 21st century American Orthodox liturgy built upon the Russian Orthodox tradition is a mouth-watering one… Musically, of course, it is to the compact disc performance that I will most often return; but as an experience, the Blu-ray service is unforgettable. This could constitute a rare entry of religious music into my Wants List … who knows?”

—Colin Clarke

See the full reviews in the March/April 2021 issue Fanfare Magazine