Music Reviews

Artist: Roman Stolyar (@)
Title: Missa Apocryph
Format: 12" vinyl + CD
Label: Electroshock Records (@)
Distributor: DWM Music Company
Rated: *****
Once again Electoshock Records presents another genre-bending album that defies conventional categorization in the form of Roman Stolyar's 'Missa Apocryph'. To break the album down to its basic components- take a base of progressive rock, add modern classical chorale and season it liberally with liturgical Gregorian chant. Yet like many culinary recipes, the dish cannot be solely judged by the sum of its ingredients.

Although most listeners in the U.S. probably haven't heard of the Russian (Siberian) composer Roman Stolyar, I'm sure he is much more known in Europe (and probably elsewhere) especially in Russia. Stolyar's background is in modern (free) jazz piano and classical composition. He studied under Yuri Yukechev and has collaborated with such notables as Anatoly Vapirov, Carl Bergstrom-Nielsen, Hans Schüttler, Lot Lorien (Bulgarian world-fusion band), among other projects such as jazz groups Alter Ego, and New Generation and Shanti, an eclectic music duo with Roman and his sister Yelena Silantieva on vocals. For all of his jazz and classical background, Roman looks and sounds like he could have been in one of any progressive rock bands of the 1970's, although he would have been too young to be there at the time having been born in 1967. Then again, almost any progressive rock musician will have some jazz and classical background, some weighing more in one direction than the other. But the music on 'Missa Apocryph' is more about the vocals than it is about the instrumental aspect, as the chorale work dominates in nearly every way.

'Missa Apocryph' is heavily reliant on the Sharomov Vocal Ensemble consisting of Yelena Zabvarfskaya and Olga Ossipova (sopranos); Ludmila Tyukhaeva (mezzo-soprano); Alexander Zverev (tenor) and Pavel Sharomov (bass) to realize the concept of bringing Gregorian liturgical music into the 21st century. Now this is NOT Gregorian chant, although the lyrics (as well as song titles) are derived from it. There six tracks ' 'Kyrie,' 'Gloria,' 'Credo,' 'Sanctus,' 'Benedictus,' and 'Agnus Dei' that span a little under forty minutes. The music begins with a little atmospheric (and amazingly played) solo alto recorder by Roman before the drums (yes, there are drums, programmed drums, but still drums) keyboard accents and allegro vocals kick in. The phrase 'Kyrie eleison' is done in elaborate near-baroque rondos, but with expression that includes modern jazz as well as traditional classical. For reference, anyone familiar with some of the more elaborate vocal choral work by the prog-rock band Gentle Giant might have a clue as to what's going on here, but the GG boys are rank amateurs in the chorale department compared with the Sharomov Vocal Ensemble. There is a tremendous amount of counterpoint and even operatic phrasing as the Sharamov folks belt it out. This is often enhanced with dramatic keyboard accents among the ostinatos. 'Gloria' is a bit more moderate and grand, but still embellished with contrapuntal vocal accents. To some extent, Roman's orchestration takes a back seat to the vocals but still moves it along enhancing the ambience. At times it could be as simple as a bass underpinning, and at others quite polyphonic, yet never overriding the vocals.

I am wondering if it was a conscious decision on Roman's part to use obviously synthetic sounds for his instrumentation rather than pipe organ, piano and real strings. Even the drums don't sound quite real, although the programming is quite elaborate. Maybe that's the modern aspect he was striving for, but it tends to make it 'prog-rocky' something purists might have a hard time with. Prog-rock aficionados should love it though. There are no instrumental solos or extended passages, only occasional brief interludes. 'Credo' is perhaps the closest piece to modern classical vocal music with its very stylized phrasing, the longest piece on the album with little to no instrumental backing until the halfway point. This sounds like an incredibly difficult piece of music to perform. It's really quite amazing, and I have not much to compare it to, except maybe Brian Ferneyhough, although his stuff is a lot more difficult to listen to. Ferneyhough's 'Missa Brevis' comes close but is a good deal more avant-garde and disjunctive. Stolyar's music has smoothness to its form that makes it much more palatable.

'Sanctus' and 'Benedictus' have a lot of rhythmic impetus to them heightening the drama, and they could stand together as a prog-rock mini-opus. If Wakeman or Emerson were doing music like this, people might be buying their albums again! There is a lot more harmonic unison in the vocals on these pieces than the others, quite effective too. There is also some real piano on this track. 'Agnus Dei' has a cinematic ambience through much of it being dreamlike and very moody. I could easily see it being adapted to a soundtrack.

To sum up, Stolyar's 'Missa Apocryph' is much more than the sum of its components- a rich pastiche of the ancient and modern, a work of depth and beauty. I would have preferred a real drummer and some elements like pipe organ and more piano, and maybe the instruments taking a bigger part in the music (perhaps an expanded edition?) but for what it is, it's great. Something I'd love to see performed live. I doubt I'll ever have the chance though.

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