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Sergie RACHMANINOV (1873 – 1943)
Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom Op. 31
Deacon Tobias Simms(Celebrant); Proto-deacon Peter Scorer (Deacon)
Choir of King’s College, Cambridge/Stephen Cleobury
Recorded Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, UK, July 2003
EMI CLASSICS 5576772 [75:11]


Rachmaninov wrote little sacred music but some of what there is has been well served by the recording business, particularly the All-Night Vigil (what Anglicans and others call Vespers). Better known than the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, his Vespers were, as far as anyone knows, primarily written for concert performance whereas the Liturgy ties in very much with practical, liturgical practice. In listening to the music it is probably best to bear this in mind, treating the setting as a ritualistic offering composed within certain age-old conventions rather than an integrated, late romantic choral work. The format is that of a Celebrant or Deacon chanting text in traditional plainsong (antiphon) followed by a choral response that Rachmaninov has set. There are a total of 23 sections and there may be several responses within a section.

The style of the music is partly determined by the Russian Orthodox Church rules that Rachmaninov chose to obey. These demanded that sung words should be clearly heard which meant eschewing any clever stuff such as elaborate polyphony, and that there should be no accompanying instruments. The rules clearly derive from the Catholic Church's edicts made during the Council of Trent in 1562, rules that many great composers over the centuries have stretched to the limit and beyond. Rachmaninov’s respect for the guidelines largely determines the style of the music.

The text is often pointed like psalms resulting in several words being sung to one note. This means the harmonic rhythm (chord change) is slow, and this, combined with the relative lack of tension and discord, plus predominance of major keys, means we have music that sounds continually beautiful and relaxed. It is music that is good for you – free of Russian gloom and doom, extreme Tchaikovskian emotion and, mercifully, Mahlerian angst. However, a function of this restrictive style is that any speeding up, rising of pitch and so on can produce moments of considerable intensity. These moments come in waves and first occur at section 7. I was reminded of Purcell’s great Anglican anthems at these points.

This brings me to a major issue that must be recognised when it comes to purchasing a recording of the Liturgy. One of the reasons Purcell came to mind is probably because I am, in this recording, listening to an English Cathedral-type choir. The sound is unmistakable, particularly as the boy-choristers’ upper notes soar to the vaulted roof of their own chapel at King’s College, Cambridge - one of Europe’s great ecclesiastical buildings. It is a sound that is a very long way from the idiomatic rich, intense depth of a Russian Orthodox choral rendering with its inimitable bass tone that Russians are specially trained for. If such authenticity is your main consideration then you will need to go for a Russian, or maybe East European recording (EMI do a fine Bulgarian version). A good bargain buy here would be Brilliant Classics’ three-CD set recording of the Russian State Symphony Capella which includes the Vespers as well (see review ).

A half-way-house compromise on authenticity comes from an unlikely quarter with the Kansas City Chorale from Nimbus – a fine performance, and in Father Andre Papkov they have a genuinely fruity Celebrant.

What a crack English choir is likely to produce is immaculate musicianship, beauty and perfect intonation (but not necessarily perfect Russian pronunciation). This was provided ten years ago in a Hyperion recording by the Corydon Singers under Matthew Best. The King’s College choir is following in that tradition but with their boy trebles they sound even more "English cathedral" and compared to the Russians, very well mannered. However, leaving idiomatic issues aside, from a purely musical standpoint some may conclude this the finest performance of all. Stephen Cleobury coaxes from his team astonishing dynamic range that can both move and excite, and when those trebles soar in the acoustic for which they are, as it were, designed, then the spine tingles. The choir’s recording of the Vespers a few years ago was hugely admired and was a hot seller. This disc deserves to do equally well.

I have to say, all this still leaves me ambivalent about the importance of so-called authentic choir sound. I cannot help pondering how I would feel if I heard the Russian State Symphony Capella perform a core Anglican work such as Thomas Tallis’s sixteenth century magnificent Litany Responses – in English, of course. I might be shocked. I might be excited. Who knows? I wonder if someone could arrange it.

John Leeman

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