One of the most grown-up review sites around

54,928 reviews
and more.. and still writing ...

Search MusicWeb Here



International mailing

Founder: Len Mullenger                                    Editor in Chief:John Quinn             


Crotchet   AmazonUK   AmazonUS

Sergei RACHMANINOV: (1873 - 1943)
Vespers – All Night Vigil (1915)
Raissa Palmu (soprano), Erja Wimeri (contralto) Eugen Antoni (tenor)
Finnish National Opera Chorus/Eric-Olof Söderström
recorded in St. John Church, Helsinki, 1st April, 29th, 30th 31st May, 1st June, 2001. DDD
NAXOS 8.555908 [54’00"]

This recording, which comes as part of Naxos’s 20th century Choral Music series, was made over an extended period of five days. For a professional choir this represents quite a long series of recording sessions. Yet, we should not be altogether surprised, because while this vast piece of unaccompanied Russian liturgy may not sound challenging it is a tremendous marathon to bring off successfully.

Rachmaninov only completed two choral works, the Vigil under discussion here and the much rarer Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom of 1910.

Russian Church music had been a part of the composer’s life since boyhood. Those readers who know only a little of his music will remember that chant plays a part either directly (as in his use of the ‘Dies Irae’ say in the Variations on a theme of Paganini and in ‘The isle of the dead’) or indirectly as in the many modal themes used in the Second Symphony.

The booklet notes by Hikka Seppala are some of the most useful I have ever read. We are given a relevant biography of the composer and a study of his choral works. Then follows a description of ‘The All-night vigil’ in the liturgy. The writer then elaborates how the music fits into the liturgy and addresses its structure. The full sung text is given in Russian on the left side and an English translation on the right. This text consists of psalms and prayers mixing with the ‘Hymn of Thanksgiving to the Mother of God’. Then comes the longest movement ‘The Great doxology’ culminating in the ‘Kontakion’ for the ‘Annunciation’, much of it written with great passion and sincerity.

There is a photograph of the choir, a mixed male and female group consisting of over sixty singers. The basses are especially impressive particularly below the clef. This gives the kind of massive sound which you might expect from Russian church music. However the choir is Finnish and do not have quite the Russian pronunciation or colour that a real Russian choir would have. The enunciation is not always as crisp as one would really like. Just because Finland is next door to Russia one cannot presume that the singers fully know the nuances of the language. For example an authentic choir would give great emphasis to ‘Bogu’ which is GOD, the word always standing apart from the surrounding ones. The direct passion and the huge contrast of dynamics associated with a powerful Russian choir are not always delineated. If you want that kind of performance you should search out the version by RSFSR Academic Russian choir under Alexander Sveshnikov on ‘Angel’.

Of course the acoustic does not help and the recording has the choir set back a little too far with loss of clarity.

The soloists are mostly suitable although the contralto Erja Wimeri, who is a member of the choir, has a rather emphatic vibrato. Her sound is mostly typical of contraltos from Russia and indeed Scandinavia. It is probably what Rachmaninov expected but she may not be everyone’s ‘cup of tea’ especially British listeners. It’s true to say that the general sound of the women in the choir is not vibrato free and why should it be? Singing devoid of vibrato would be totally out of place. The tenor, Eugen Antoni is mostly very convincing but just lacks that final open-throated power which I recall hearing from tenor soloists in Moscow choirs.

To sum up: not a bad release but not a favourite. If you buy it then there is much to enjoy but if you want something with real punch then look again, either at the disc I mentioned above or possibly at the Seattle Pro Musica on Philips or the Robert Shaw Singers on Telarc. While both are American choirs each captures the style and language imaginatively and with finer soloists.

Gary Higginson

see also review by John Phillips

Advertising on

Donate and keep us afloat


New Releases

Naxos Classical

Click to see New Releases
Get 10% off using code musicweb10


Obtain 10% discount

Recordings of the Month


Symphonic Works

Frederico Mompou

Extraordinary Music for Organ


Gunnar Kristinsson Moonbow

Mozart and Contemporaries


La clarinette Parisienne


Return to Index

Untitled Document

Reviews from previous months
Join the mailing list and receive a hyperlinked weekly update on the discs reviewed. details
We welcome feedback on our reviews. Please use the Bulletin Board
Please paste in the first line of your comments the URL of the review to which you refer.