Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

Vespers Op.37
National Academic Choir of Ukraine "Dumka"/Berusene/Korinnyk/Tyshchencko/Savchuk
Recorded December 2000
REGIS RRC 1043 [61.42]
Available for around £6 from your dealer

  1. Come let us worship
  2. Bless the Lord, O my soul
  3. Blessed be the Man
  4. O serene Light
  5. Now let the servant depart
  6. Rejoice O virgin
  7. Glory to God
  8. Praise the name of the Lord
  9. Blessed art Thou, O Lord
  10. Having seen the Resurrection of the Lord
  11. My soul magnifies the Lord
  12. Glory to God
  13. Troparia of the Day of Salvation
  14. Christ is risen
  15. Thanks be given to the Mother of God

These chants were passed down orally through the centuries until a form of crude notation was devised in the eleventh century which consisted of up or down signs marked above the Gospel text, rather than the Western horizontal staff system. Whether these marks represent the rise or fall of pitch or whether they are choreographic expression marks derived from a conductor's hand movements remains the source of contentious debate among specialists. The source of our knowledge is thanks to ecclesiastics in 18th century Russia, who had the foresight to preserve the chants and transcribe them into more familiar notation. Tchaikovsky writes evocatively of the effect of listening to this marvellous sound, 'To stand on a Saturday evening in the twilight in some little country church, filled with the smoke of incense, to lose oneself in the external questions, whence, why and whither, to be startled from one's trance by a burst from the choir, to be carried away by the poetry of this music…all this is infinitely precious to me, one of my deepest joys'.

Rachmaninov shared Tchaikovsky's enthusiasm, but whereas the latter was much influenced by the 18th century approach, Rachmaninov got beyond this and into the Byzantine essence of the music (compare both men's settings of the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom). The Vespers (or All Night Vigil as they are more properly known) were composed in 1915 and he used plainchant in six of the canticles. Where he resorted to his own inspiration he used the term 'conscious counterfeits', a euphemism for pastiche perhaps, but nonetheless both well-intentioned and heartfelt. Shortly after he had written them the Russian Bolshevik revolution put an end to any performance and Rachmaninov, who lived in America for the rest of his life, never found the resources or a choir capable of producing that unique sound. Significantly he wanted the Nunc Dimittis from the Vespers sung at his funeral.

In this performance, a few small ensemble or intonation slips notwithstanding, you can smell the incense evoked by Tchaikovsky's words albeit from Kiev Cathedral rather than the more modest country church he had in mind. Both ends of the choir cope with ease, the sopranos high up in the Troparia, the basses frequently sent well below the staff to bottom D flats. The vocal quality of the two solo Russian tenors featured here may not appeal to everyone's taste but if you want the authentic sound of a Russian choir, this is the disc for you.

Christopher Fifield

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