> Sergei Rachmaninov - Verspers Op.37 [TH]: Classical Reviews- March 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Vespers Op. 37 ‘All -Night Vigil’ for soloists and mixed choir a cappella (1915)
Klaudia Zeiner (alto), Mikhail Agafonov (tenor),
Lew Maidatschewski (lector)
MDR Rundfunkchor Leipzig
Howard Arman
Recorded in the Paul-Gerhardt-Kirche, May, 2000


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Although generally known as the ‘Vespers’ in English, Rachmaninov’s great contribution to the history of Russian sacred music is, in fact, a setting of the services of Vespers, Matins, and the First Hour as they are celebrated in the Russian Orthodox Church and known as the ‘All-Night Vigil’. Rachmaninov might have been somewhat ambivalent about the church, but he was far from irreligious and, taking his cue from Tchaikovsky, had already composed a succession of choral works when he began to write the ‘Vespers’ during a concert tour of 1915. The first performance, in March of that year, was given by the Moscow Synodal Choir under Nikolai Danilin, and proved so successful with the public that it had to be repeated four times during that season. The work is dedicated to the memory of the respected theorist and scholar Stepan Vasilevich Smolensky, who had been responsible for introducing Rachmaninov to the sacred repertoire at the Moscow Conservatory.

The ‘Vespers’ is a work which can inspire both conductors and choirs to give of their very best, and subsequently has done well on disc. I can say at the outset that this present recording is as good as I’ve heard. Whilst it is a bit extreme to say success depends on that amazing Slavic choral tradition characterised by the sound of the basses, it is undeniably true that the ‘bottom end’ of the choir is crucial; the ‘Nyne otpushchayeshi’ (Nunc Dimittis), descends at the end to a low B flat, and low Cs are littered throughout the score. In fact, Rachmaninov himself, (who had a special affection for this fifth number), when questioned by colleagues as to where on earth they were to find such capable singers, replied ‘I know the voices of my countrymen, and well know the demands I can make of our Russian basses!’ The Leipzig Rundfunkchor is spectacular at this point, and need fear nothing in comparison to the ‘authentic’ choirs on disc, probably best epitomised by the St. Petersburg Cappella under Vladislav Chernushenko on CDM. In fact, good as the sound of these Russian choirs is, their intonation can be a little suspect in places, and in this regard the Hyperion performance by the Corydon Singers under Matthew Best, must be one of the securest on record.

Whatever the competition, this new Leipzig disc is a real winner. The size of the choir gives it a weight and resonance that is slightly lacking in the Corydon version, whilst their excellent conductor, Howard Arman, makes sure that pitch and balance are as good as one can hope for in such a virtuosic score. The depth of tone and slavic-sounding darkness of the timbre is thrilling; try No. 10 (translated as ‘The Veneration of the Cross’), where the composer’s chant-like texture mimics the tolling of great bells, to see what I mean. The two soloists are good, but the tenor rather spoils his contribution with pitch problems in places, and the alto is a might operatic for this music (this is a common complaint from critics in this piece). Both at least have an authentic Russian tone quality, in itself worth having.

What does make the disc stand out from the competition is the inclusion of the lector’s readings; these are chant-like interpolations not dissimilar to our own Anglican services, but sounding wonderfully deep and, well, Russian, in the formidable performance of Lew Maidatschewski. His rich, dark bass voice is perfectly suited to this music, and although I had not encountered a disc that uses the chants, they make the whole thing that much more moving and convincing.

The recorded sound is just resonant enough for the music to be placed in the correct ambience, but not too ‘cloudy’, as some of the competition tends towards. The presentation is another intelligent attempt to get away from the ubiquitous plastic jewel case, and notes are brief but helpful. Texts and translations are included.

Very highly recommended.

Tony Haywood

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