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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
All Night Vigil (Vespers) Op. 37 (1915)
Iris Oja, contralto
Mati Turi, tenor
Vladimir Miller, basso profundo (Intonations)
Tiit Kogerman, tenor (Intonations)
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir/Paul Hillier
Recorded 24-27 May, 2004 at the Dome Church, Haapsalu, Estonia
HARMONIA MUNDI HMU 907384 [53:56]


Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil is not only one of the crowning glories of Russian church music; it is also the work that the composer himself regarded as his finest achievement. For the ever self-deprecating Rachmaninov, this was one of the few works in his output that brought him genuine pride and satisfaction. It has also in recent years become one of the most fashionable in the choral repertoire and this disc by the Estonians under Paul Hillier was one that I had eagerly anticipated hearing.

After repeated listening, this performance has made it to my ‘certainly worthy’ list, but is a fairly far down on the desert island roster. There are some things that set it apart though. One is the use of the orthodox chant intonations, which most recordings omit. Vladimir Miller seems just barely in possession of the requisite notes. They are there and they are audible, but it almost seems as though he has developed some sort of hyper-technique as opposed to being able to just open up and sing down there. It does not detract from the performance, but I did find myself wishing him well each time I heard him sing.

Nor am I completely convinced that Hillier has achieved the kind of spiritual depth that is so much a part of this music. Compared to Valery Polyanski’s stunning performance from a few years ago with the then USSR Ministry of Culture Chamber Choir, or Tonu Kaljuste’s magnificent recording with the Swedish Radio Choir, Hillier seems to approach the music more from an ethereal stance than a profound one. There is no questioning the ability of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, which is arguably one of the finest ensembles in Europe. There does seem however to be more emphasis placed on controlled legato and perfect blend than there is on the overwhelming sense of religious ecstasy that is sewn into every fiber of this music.

What I missed most, perhaps, is the almost gritty sound of the Russian choirs in the more energetic passages. Sometimes a less refined choral tone is what is called for. I have always been less than satisfied with choirs who sing this music too "prettily" for lack of a better word. The Estonians, for all of their wonderful singing, miss the boat here in terms of romantic, fervent abandon. It is almost as if the religious oppression that the Russians suffered through most of the twentieth century finds its release in their performance of this music. This is an effect that I found on the whole absent in Hillier’s reading.

The true standout of this performance is tenor Mati Turi, whose three solo appearances are nothing short of stunning. His clear, rich tenor sails about the rest of the choir, and he knows the exact mood and temperament necessary to convey his texts. His is a presence that is thrilling and soothing at the same time, an angelic presence in divine music.

Although I would not put this as my first choice, it would be a nice addition to any library, and is certainly a worthy interpretation. For followers of Hillier, certainly give it a spin. But make sure to have one of the other two abovementioned performances in your library as well.

Kevin Sutton


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