Sergei RACHMANINOFF (1873-1943)
Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, Op. 31 (1910) – excerpts [25:48]
Bless the Lord, O my soul [4:02]
In Thy Kingdom [5:04]
Hymn of the Cherubim [5:36]
We Praise Thee [2:40]
It is truly meet to bless thee [2:30]
Our Father [3:57]
Praise the Lord from the heavens [1:59]
Vespers, Op. 37 (1915) – excerpts [34:46]
Bless the Lord, O my soul [4:35]
Blessed is the man [5:26]
O Gladsome light [3:27]
Nunc dimittis [3:41]
Ave Maria [3:01]
Little Doxology [2:20]
Great Doxology [6:47]
Thou didst rise from the tomb [3:43]
O Queen of the Heavenly Host [1:46]
Accentus, Eric Ericson Chamber Choir/Laurence Equilbey
rec. May 2010, Église Notre-Dame du Liban, Paris
Russian texts and transliterations, English and French translations included
NAÏVE V5239 [60:43]

The cover of this disc may mislead some people, as it misled me. At first sight one might assume that the recording consists of Rachmaninov’s two great settings of Russian Orthodox liturgical music. It’s only when one looks at the back of the package that one sees, in rather small type the word “extraits”.

Actually, I’m a little bit puzzled because the very opening of the booklet note reads as follows: “We are currently celebrating the centenary of the first performance of the Liturgy [of St John Chrysostom] in March 1910.” I wonder why Laurence Equilbey didn’t offer us a complete performance of that work. Instead she’s selected seven of the work’s twenty movements and the disc also includes eight of the fifteen movements of the Vespers, as it’s called here, though the more proper title is All Night Vigil.

So this disc isn’t aimed at anyone wanting a complete account of either work. However, for those who wish to sample Rachmaninov’s liturgical music this offers an excellent introduction. And the disc is well worth the attention of collectors who have complete recordings of either or both works already because the singing is of a very high standard indeed.

Laurence Equilbey’s conducting teachers included Eric Ericson so it’s a nice idea that she’s combined the forces of her own admirable Accentus ensemble with the eponymous chamber choir founded by her teacher. According to the list of performers Accentus is the larger group, providing thirty-nine of the sixty-three singers. The combined forces consist of 18 sopranos, 13 altos and 16 each of tenors and basses. The sound made by the combined choir is wonderful. Furthermore, they’ve been accorded a very satisfying recorded sound by the Naïve engineers, who seem to have used the resonant acoustic of the Paris church of Notre-Dame du Liban very intelligently and effectively.

The Liturgy of St John Chrysostom is the less well-known of the two works. Perhaps that’s because, though it contains some fine music, its sister work is an even more compelling creation. Here Mlle Equilbey and her singers excel in the extracts they’ve selected. I really admired the way the terraced entries are weighted in ‘Hymn of the Cherubim’ – and in this piece, as in so many on the disc, the vocal lines are sustained marvellously. The choir achieves a marvellous quiet sonority in the hushed, rapt ‘We Praise Thee’ and the setting of ‘Our Father’ a chant-like prayerful piece, is beautifully done.

In the Vespers we hear an excellent, expressive alto soloist, Joanna Dobrakowska, in ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul’. She has a good Slavic timbre – but no wobble in the tone! Even more notable is the contribution of tenor Romain Champion in the famous ‘Nunc Dimittis’. His plangent, gently ardent tenor is well suited to the music and the gently swaying choral accompaniment is expertly judged. At the end the basses descend to their soft, cavernous bottom B flat without difficulty. The ‘Ave Maria’ is poised and prayerful; I really appreciated the firm and warm tone of the choir in this movement – and elsewhere. Earlier, in ‘Blessed is the man’ the performance has a real Russian feel to it, not least in the repeated prayerful exclamations of ‘Alliluia’. The selection concludes with the joyful ‘O Queen of the Heavenly Host’, in which, after all the preceding devotion, genuine excitement is conveyed.

I do have some regret that we only hear extracts from both scores on this disc. But that regret is more than outweighed by the pleasure one gets from the fine singing on offer here and on that basis this CD is well worth acquiring, especially if you don’t know either work for then Laurence Equilbey and her superb singers will open your ears to the serene beauties of Rachmaninov’s liturgical music. The documentation is good and I’m particularly pleased that a transliteration of the Russian text is provided as this makes it so much easier to follow the performances.

John Quinn

Laurence Equilbey and her superb singers will open your ears to the serene beauties of Rachmaninov’s liturgical music.