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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
All Night Vigil (Vespers) (1915) [54:00]
Raissa Palmu, soprano
Erja Wimeri, contralto
Eugen Antoni, tenor
Finnish National Opera Chorus/Eric-Olof Söderström
Rec. St. John Church, Helsinki, Finland, 1 April, 29-31 May, 5 June 2001. DDD
NAXOS 8.555908 [54:00]

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Rachmaninovís 1915 All Night Vigil comes from one of the composerís most creative periods, a time that also saw the creation of the second and third piano concertos. Since its first performance, it has been recognized as one of the great works of choral music composed in the twentieth century. It has held a special and deeply emotional place in the hearts of Russian Orthodox worshippers and choir lovers all over the world. The Vigil is truly a monument to the genre.

Alas, it is hard to imagine how a group of singers so close to the sea could have so completely missed the boat in this performance. I have often contended that opera choruses do not good choirs make, and this recording is all the evidence I need to bear out my theory. Eric-Olof Söderström leads a wobbly group of wannabe opera stars in a perfectly sloppy and misinterpreted rendition of a great work. Naxos seldom makes tragic errors, but this one is a blemish on an otherwise beautiful face.

I am uncertain as to which edition of the score Söderström uses, but there are some inconsistencies here with any other version that I have heard. First of all, he eliminates the AMEN that brackets the opening chorus (Come, let us worship) and the second (Bless the Lord, O my soul). These moments of repose are sublime and I believe absolutely essential to an effective performance.

As the choir lurches into the first number, we are bombarded with a lack of ensemble, a questionable choice of tempo and articulation and no sense of any stylistic considerations inherent to Russian singing other than that this music is loud. There is no blend to the choir, and the intonation waivers in and out at an annoying frequency. Throughout, Söderström misses opportunity after opportunity to move the listener by blowing through pianissimo passages like a freight train, ignoring poignant rubati and failing to build phrases from a solid starting point to a glorious climax. This performance comes off as utilitarian as a book report.

Erja Wimeriís voice is unstable and there is nowhere near enough depth and power in her voice to effectively pull off one of the lowest and most difficult contralto solos in the repertoire. We are left hoping for her to be able to make it to the end, nervous that she will blow a vocal fold in the process.

Tenor Soloist Eugen Antoni is considerably better, with a warm and rich tone and clear articulation that is pleasant indeed. He is the sole saving grace of this otherwise abysmal performance. Raissa Palmu is fine, but I am at a loss as to why she is there, as there are no soprano solos in the work, and what she sings is evidently an interpolation that I have never heard any other choir make.

Naxos waited for three years to bring this one out, and were I on the editorial board there, I would have left it in the can. This is a performance that cannot come close to comparing to the superb readings by Tornu Kaljuiste and the Swedish Radio Choir, The Robert Shaw Festival Singers or Valery Polyanskiís slow but sublime reading with the former USSR Ministry of Culture Chamber Choir.

What a shame it is that so sublime a work could not have received better treatment from so worthy a company as Naxos. Pull this one and do it again. Your public deserves better.

Kevin Sutton

see also review by John Phillips

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