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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"]

When this disc was first announced, I expected to be thrilled by it, based upon my experience of Scandinavian choirs plus the fact that it was a recent digitally recorded Naxos production. It fulfilled all of my initial expectations with superb diction and pitch together with a bloom on the sound, which I found extremely attractive.

The performance comes pretty close to making me prefer it to my former first choice which was the EMI set with Bulgarian forces. This had the additional attraction of a vast acoustic thus recreating the cathedral environment in which this work thrives.

So far so good, and the praise must go to the conductor who has an instinctive feel for the drama implicit in the music, and when the dynamic rises, both the chorus and recording handle the enormous ranges perfectly.

The basses in the Finnish Opera Chorus have more than adequate power at the bottom end of their range without the almost overpowering tone of the Bulgarian forces. Indeed in some ways this performance is preferable because of the better than average overall balance within the choir, making all parts of Rachmaninov’s masterpiece clearly audible.

What I find inexplicable about this recording is the quality of the singing of the contralto soloist, a member of the choir itself, which for me, totally ruins what otherwise would have been a highly recommendable version of this relatively popular unaccompanied choral work. Whether it is the fault of the sound engineer in boosting the very pronounced wobble in her tone, or it is, as I suspect, more to do with her ability, or to put it more accurately her inability to keep to a steady note. This fault completely rules this performance out, unless one uses the CD player selection buttons to remove the movement (No.2) where she is singing. The inexplicable part is why the producer could think that this disfigurement in the solo singing was acceptable in what is after all an important issue. Given the efforts of the rest of the performers, this is totally unacceptable and it ruins what would have otherwise been a marvellous issue.

As Naxos’s reputation for first class issues improves it is own-goals like this that destroy all the good work their engineers and other staff are doing in the development of the label.

I am sorry to have to greet the disc in this way. I am sure that all involved were giving of their best, and for the most part the results are superb. However, we are reviewing these issues to guide consumers as to the high and low points of performance and recording, and because of the contralto soloist, this disc is un-recommendable.


John Phillips


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