How Russian does a choir have to be to pull off Rachmaninov’s choral music? Judging by the myriad versions in the catalogue, especially of his Vespers, the answer from the record labels appears to be that it doesn’t matter very much.
That is a shame in many respects, although part of the greatness of this music is its ability to communicate deeply, even when rendered in more Western idioms. However, the Latvian Radio Choir are as close to the source as you could wish for, and this is a reading that ticks all the boxes for authenticity, at least to my Western ears.
One particular problem with the work is its reliance on basses that can get down to, and then sustain, bottom Cs. Fortunately, the Latvian Radio Choir have the bass voices required. I could imagine the basses of a Russian choir dominating more when they hit those low pedals, but the effect here is of a more even balance across the astonishing range of the choir, and overall it is a more musical effect.
The recording is made in very fine SACD audio, although that raises some questions about the role of superior sound in this sort of repertoire. If you visit a cathedral in Russia, and the newly re-built Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow is a great example, you’ll find all manner of arcades and side galleries convoluting the sound. You will often struggle to work out where the choir is, not just because they are obscured from view, but also because the sound comes from all directions, and with an uneven delay that rounds off all the corners.
What role then for superior audio in a choral tradition that values emulsified and imprecise acoustical environments? Well, this recording was made in a Protestant cathedral, the Dome Cathedral in Riga. It is a resonant environment, but the decay is clean. The microphones are set far enough back to give the acoustic an important role in the sound profile, but not so far back that the detail is lost. If I were being pedantic, I might suggest that this acoustic is inauthentic, but given the superior quality of the results, that whole issue fades into irrelevance. For this is a very fine recording indeed. I have only heard the stereo SACD mix, and I have to confess that this is one of the few occasions where I regret not having splashed out on a surround sound setup. But even in stereo, the sound is rich and enveloping.
There are one or two places where the ensemble of the choir is slightly loose. Rachmaninov’s homophonic textures require a very high degree of accuracy, especially at the starts of phrases, and some of those entries are slightly imprecise. On the other hand, there is an impressive variety of texture from the choir. This, perhaps, is a benefit of performance from a non-liturgical choir; many aspects of the recording emulate a liturgical context, but the priority for the performers is the music. And the limited range of textures that the music employs is exploited to the full. An impressive dynamic range too, with some wonderful swells over the course of some of the longer phrases.
Ondine has recently been bought out by Naxos, leading some
to worry about the future of SACD on the label. The release
of this disc augurs well in that respect, although the recording
itself was made long before the takeover, so it may be too early
to celebrate. Nevertheless, this is a fine recording, and demonstrates
an important and under-appreciated facet of the technology,
to create atmosphere and involvement in music where pinpoint
precision is less of a concern.