Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873 – 1943)
Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom Op.31 (1910) [95:11]
Kansas City Chorale/Charles Bruffy
Father Andre Papkov (Protodeacon); David Adams (Celebrant); Todd E. Berry (Second Celebrant);
rec. St. John’s Center, Kansas City, Missouri, USA, 12 -15 October 1995
NIMBUS NI 5497/8 [41:26 + 53:45]
Another disc of absolutely stunning quality from the Kansas City Chorale and their clearly inspirational conductor Charles Bruffy. I have written elsewhere of the extraordinary control and tonal blend that this choir achieves and those qualities are amply on display here. But to think that technique is a substitute for passion and power would be quite wrong because they are present in abundance too.
Although far from rare in the CD catalogues now, Rachmaninov’s two great settings of the Russian Liturgy; the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom Op.31 and the All-night Vigil Op.37 still come as something of a surprise to listeners brought up on Brief-Encounter Piano Concertos. Both these settings are big pieces; the work currently under review running to over an hour and a half. As an opus it sits with Isle of the Dead and the Piano Concerto No.3 before and the first sets of Piano Preludes and Études-Tableaux afterwards. So this can be seen as being central in a period of great musical fertility. I am far from being expert on the subtleties of the way in which the Russian liturgy is set. But from my position of textual ignorance this is quite glorious. Other recordings I have heard have always been performed by Eastern European choirs recorded in cavernous basilicas where the great booming resonance adds to the religious theatricality implicit in the music. Prior to listening to this recording I have to admit that I wondered if a small professional choir from the Midwest United States would be able to emulate this sound-world. I need not have worried – again I cannot speak about how idiomatic their Russian pronunciation is – but the fervour and ecstatic quality to the singing is all I could have hoped for. Normally, the choir consists of just 24 voices split into four even groups. Wisely I think, for this recording, they have drafted in an additional three bass voices as well as having the extensive Protodeacon solos taken by Father Andre Papkov who is a long-time expert in the music of the Russian Orthodox Church. Also, the three recordings I have heard by the choir have each been made in a different Kansas Church. It sounds as if the present venue for this recording has been chosen to mimic the longer resonance mentioned above. Whether that is a function of the venue or the engineering or both I think it is a wise choice and one that works very well. My other concern was the scale of the choir. The composition was conceived with the Moscow Synodal Choir in mind. This comprised 50 boys and 30 men – not far off three times the size of the choir here and significantly with no women’s voices. I am sure that for some the all-male choir would be authentically essential but when the upper parts are sung with the purity and sheer tonal beauty as they are here it’s a trade-off I am happy to make. Also, there is no lack of power when the music requires.
I find it very hard to select movements let alone moments in this performance that are highlights – the inspiration and execution run at a high level throughout. One thought I would share is the brilliance with which the choir adapt their internal balance between sections. Take the very opening of the first disc, over the calls to prayer from the Deacon and Celebrant the choir intone ‘Lord have mercy’ – Papkov’s sepulchral bass is supremely evocative but it is the blend of the main choir that amazes me every time I return to it. It grows from the lower lines – a prayer gradually ascending from the depths of darkness and doubt. As the higher voices are gradually added there is a glorious unfurling and widening of the choral range yet nothing is forced there is a natural evolution that is hypnotically compelling. Or try the second movement Bless the Lord, O My Soul. Here it is the alto line which carries the melody initially. The way the sopranos create a halo of light around the lead line and the bass provides the firmest and deepest of supports is breathtaking. The engineering and production by Nimbus’s unnamed team is exemplary – the atmosphere for this kind of work perfectly captured and the voices of the soloists placed ideally within the main choral group. The resonance of the St. John’s Centre in Kansas is clearly present without blurring detail. Part of the theatricality of this music is when great waves of choral exalting wash and blur over the succeeding wave – try 1:30 into the Little Liturgy (track 3) and you will hear what I mean.
It is not a mode of listening to music that I often promote – but this is such a life-enhancing, spirit-lifting disc that listened to in the quiet of an evening in a room with the lights turned down it is heaven on earth as far as I am concerned. I have been listening to a sequence of Nimbus discs recently and it has struck me how consistently high their production and presentation values are. A case in point with this disc; a superbly performed disc of fascinating repertoire, supported by discreetly excellent engineering. But this is aided and supported by presentation that includes a really excellent essay by Vladimir Morosan who is an expert on Rachmaninov’s sacred choral music. I am sure I am not alone in finding that part of the whole home-listening experience is having a good detailed liner-note to read to complement the performance. Now here I’m getting into rather more retentive issues; I do like the fact that Nimbus print their booklets on high quality paper! I know it does not really matter a jot but I appreciate it! A tiny quirk though; I wonder why the text was given in English only? A transliteration at least would have helped the non-Russian-speaking listener keep a closer track on where exactly we were in the liturgy at any given moment.
There are several fine other recordings available but this pair of discs will grace any collection. For those with an interest in sacred music or just choral singing of the very highest order this is a most beautiful if not essential recording.