Roman Hurko’s Requiem for Chernobyl: Even More Relevant Today

by delarue

New York Music Daily is a week old today, and so far, there has been no coverage of albums here. After all, albums are out of fashion, particularly in the rock world. And that’s probably a good thing. Many songwriters who have a good song in them don’t have another ten, and those who do often take several albums to get all of those songs out. Yet there’s no reason to discredit the idea of an album-length artistic work, or a successful collection. One such work is Roman Hurko’s Requiem for the Victims of Chornobyl [to be consistent, the transliterations from the original Ukrainian used here are the same ones used by the composer in the cd art and album notes, i.e. “Chornobyl” for Чернобыл].

Why is this ten-year-old album still relevant? For one, 2011 is the 25th anniversary of the disaster it commemorates, one which most likely killed a million people worldwide from radiation poisioning, cancer and birth defects. 2011 has also been the year of the probably far more lethal catastrophe at Fukushima – since there has never been a waterborne nuclear disaster, the ultimate toll in terms of human lives is unknown, next to impossible to predict, and could exceed the 1986 catastrophe by a factor of ten or even more. And taken simply as an artistic statement, an expression of grief and remembrance, Hurko’s Requiem is as memorable as it is important.

It is a work of the utmost solemnity and somberness: the music is as heavy as the lethal metals expelled in the nuclear inferno that followed the failed safety test (arguably the cruelest irony in human history) the night of April 26, 1986. It’s sung by the Frescoes of Kyiv Chamber Choir conducted by Oleksandr Bondarenko, who publically premiered it in that city fifteen years later. The lyrics are an Orthodox Catholic requiem, sung in Ukrainian specifically for the disaster victims. The music, in fifteen sections, begins very low, still and funereal, gradually grows more radiant, a balance of extreme lows and highs. A bass soloist appears on the third track and sings his most melodic part – since this is mass, much of the rest of his assigned passages are practically spoken, more an invocation than a melody. Throughout the suite, the tempos range from glacial to barely largo. And the melody itself resists resolution, and other than a small handful of anguished crescendos, doesn’t move around very much. Which it shouldn’t: there aren’t many shades of grief. That’s what makes this such a universal work. In ten years’ time, it will tragically be as appropriate a requiem for the victims of Fukushima as it was and remains for their counterparts thousands of miles away.

Who is the audience for this album? Fans of heavy, dark music – it doesn’t get any more gothic than this. And fans of the darker side of pre-baroque choral music, specifically composers like John Sheppard. Those who prefer the pyrotechnics of gospel music, or more avant garde outfits like Conspirare, may find this claustrophobic and monochromatic. Which, again, it’s supposed to be. Ten years after it was released, it still packs a wallop.

In the years since, Hurko – a Canadian of Ukrainian descent – has continued to compose: his most recent work is a richly dynamic setting of the complete Orthodox/Byzantine Catholic Vespers for choir and soloist. A search of the sharelockers and free music blogs didn’t turn up anything – it’s surprising that even now, this album remains so obscure. Copies and downloads are still available from Hurko’s site.