> Rachmaninov Vespers Brilliant Classics [JPo]: Classical CD Reviews- Sept 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873 - 1943)

Vespers (All-Night Vigil), Op.37 (1915) - Mass for Unaccompanied Choir [61’50"]
Olga Borusene (Soprano); Yuri Korinnyk (Tenor); Mykhaylo Tyshchenko (Tenor)
The National Academic Choir of Ukraine "Dumka"/Yevchen Savchuk
Recorded in Kiev Cathedral, December 2000
Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, Op.31 (1910) - Chorus a capella [91’02"]
(recorded 1990)
O Mother of God, vigilantly praying (1893) - 4vv Sacred Concerto [9’29"]
Chorus of Spirits for "Don Juan" (?1894) - Chorus a capella [1’25"]
Panteley the Healer (1900) - Chorus a capella [4’11"]
The Russian State Symphony Cappella/Valery Polyansky
recorded 1987
Licensed from Claves, Switzerland
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 6215 [3 CDs: 2.48’27"] Superbudget

Vespers is the seventh of the Canonical Hours or services of the day of the Roman Catholic Church, and is properly held at sunset. It is also known as Evensong, particularly in the Anglican Church. The liturgical music for the Russian Church differed from the music of Western Europe in several respects. It was for a different liturgy, its Russian style was distinctive, and it was sung unaccompanied. The use of organ or instruments was forbidden in the church, and Russian composers and choir directors tried to achieve the utmost range and sonority from the forces at their disposal. The range of the voices was extended, especially downward, and the Russian basses were specially trained to sing in their deepest register. Russian composers also found that additional sonority could be produced by extensive octave-doublings of the voices (i.e. soprano and tenor) and by divisi in the orchestral sense. Other features of these choral settings were moving voices over static harmonies and parallel chord structures. These mechanisms are well shown in this recording, but especially in the Liturgy.

The Vespers is a setting of the Vespers, Matins, and the First Hour as celebrated in the Russian Orthodox Church and known as the "All-Night Vigil". The services of Matins and the First Hour are those of the following day, sung directly after Vespers. This procedure is characteristic of the Russian, rather than the Greek, Church; in cathedral and parish churches the Vigil is generally celebrated in abbreviated form, although still lasting for two hours or more, on Saturdays and the eves of major feasts. It is only in monasteries that it is celebrated fully, so earning its name. The Vigil is dedicated to the memory of the scholar Stepan Vasilevich Smolensky, who had introduced Rachmaninov to the sacred repertoire at the Moscow Conservatory. The overall impression of this disc is of a very Russian feel, almost coarse in texture. The choir is recorded in a very natural slightly reverberant setting in Kiev Cathedral, but the balance and focus on the voices is well done, and the soloists project well without being thrust forward too much. The use of the word ‘coarseness’ is a deliberate attempt to give the impression of a true Russian choir, without the smooth professionalism of a Western choir. The Corydon Singers on Hyperion (CDA66460) sing beautifully and with a most beguiling tone, but is this the true sound of this music in the Ukraine? I must confess to being in two minds over these recordings; this disc has its faults in that at times intonation is suspect, diction is not as good, and there is an overall tendency to flatness. The Corydon is also slower by four minutes, although so expert is the singing one cannot detect any dragging, but I find that the rough passages of the Ukraine forces almost grow on one, and of course their performance is entirely idiomatic. The final point is the price, the Corydon costing £14 or thereabouts.

St. John Chrysostom (347 - 407AD) was the pastor of Constantinople and wrote an Easter Sermon c.400AD, for which he was famed throughout the Byzantine Church. The Liturgy, or Mass, was set by Rachmaninov to more traditional lines than the Vigil.

It is a work of the most rich and austere (in turn) chords and musical working. I approached the work with some trepidation, not having heard it before, and also having been warned that it was not as interesting as the Vigil. I had my eyes opened - it is magnificent, and extremely well performed here. The State Symphony Capella is obviously drenched and immersed in this repertoire, and the sounds produced are most sumptuous, and, oh! those Russian basses!! If you do not know this work, I urge you to make its acquaintance; an hour and a half flew by, the performance in no small way adding to my enjoyment.

The final three choruses have all been performed before, notably on Chandos by the same forces (CHAN9802). The "Concerto for Choir" O Mother of God, is more properly a motet for unaccompanied voices catalogued as for three voices, on this recording listed as four. The other two pieces are shorter with texts by Tolstoy; the "Chorus of Spirits for Don Juan" is a gentle sacred piece, whilst Panteley the Healer is a secular work, based on the story of Lord Panteley gathering herbs to make potions. The second and third discs are issued under licence from Claves of Switzerland, and are given a rich and lifelike recording, which is not to denigrate the reproduction on the first disc, which is likewise excellent. I wish I could say the same of the booklet, which gives the words of all the pieces in English only; this does help to add sense to the music, but makes it almost impossible to follow. Also apart from the words there are no details or history about the works, but then, what can we expect for under ten pounds? The expensive part of producing discs I have been told, is the printing, so I suppose we must accept the situation, particularly as when such a bargain as this appears. If only for the sake of the Liturgy, buy it!!
John Portwood


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