Sergey RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
All-Night Vigil (Vespers), Op. 37 (1915) [57:27]
Maureen Forrester (alto); Gene Tucker (tenor)
Choral Arts Society of Washington/Mstislav Rostropovich
rec. May 1985 and September 1986, Washington Cathedral, Washington D.C.
WARNER APEX 2564 67658-5 [57:27]

Film of Rostropovich playing the cello usually shows something resembling a man possessed. How he was able to master his instrument whilst being at the same time so emotionally involved in the music is a mystery, but most of his recorded performances as a cellist demonstrate a remarkable degree of self discipline. Not so, I think, his recordings as a conductor, where a certain waywardness sometimes crept in. To hear Rostropovich the conductor in Rachmaninov’s choral masterpiece is irresistible, but the results are mixed.

The American choir sounds like a fairly substantial group, and a very accomplished one, clearly very well prepared by their Music Director, Norman Scribner. There are one or two minor lapses of intonation, nothing likely to shock, and a few places where a big, complex chord takes time to “settle”. To my inexpert ears they seem to be making more than a fair crack at the language, but they do not sound like a Russian choir, and the listener’s reaction to this disc may well depend largely on how important a factor that is.

The choir is recorded at a fair distance in a resonant but not overpowering acoustic. A little detail is lost from time to time because of the echo, but the main problem with the sound is a lack of impact; it sounds soft grained even with the volume control turned well up. It’s surprising to see Maureen Forrester’s name as the alto soloist, but she turns in a fine performance; her bottom range is powerful and often quite tenor-like. Gene Tucker is excellent. The booklet is no more than a folded sheet with track details and movement titles in four languages.

The conductor’s view of the work is, largely, uncontroversial. One exception is perhaps the best-known movement, the sixth, a hymn to the Virgin. This is marked Andante moderato in the score, and in addition the composer indicated in his autograph score that the music was to be kept moving and sung with lightness. Rostropovich takes this more slowly than I think I have ever heard it, and its essential simplicity of utterance is transformed into something cloying. Even within the slow basic tempo he holds back lovingly at phrase ends, and then slows down even more, adding an unauthorised low C in the basses, in the final bars. In contrast, the following movement, marked Andante, is taken so quickly that the music seems almost perfunctory, the wonderful bell sounds – the choir singing in eleven parts! – go for nothing. Once you’ve heard this passage under Vladislav Chernushenko, and especially the jaw-dropping crescendo/decrescendo that closes it, any other version is bound to be a disappointment.

One is occasionally disappointed by poorly managed balances. The basses, for example, almost always overpower the altos when the two voices sing the same line at the octave. And I regret the conductor’s decision to ignore the composer’s instruction that the work should end quietly. But in the end, and in this of all works, one misses that certain something that only a Russian, Baltic or maybe Scandinavian choir can bring. This is a delicate point, as I should never want to give the impression that only British choirs can sing, say, Elgar. But although the bottom Cs and B flats in the bass line are definitely present, and in tune too, what is missing is that extraordinary firm foundation that comes from having voices that maintain the power, as well as the tuning, in the very lowest register. There’s a lack of local colour in the alto voices too, when compared to other, favourite recorded performances.

This is a very cheap CD and anyone interested in hearing Rostropovich’s view of this sublime work shouldn’t hesitate. But other versions are more satisfying. The Saint Petersburg Chamber Choir is very fine under Nikolai Korniev, now on Pentatone, and I also very much enjoy the performance on Melodiya from the USSR Ministry of Culture Chamber Choir conducted by Valeri Polyansky. But for that shiver down the spine it’s Chernushenko every time, especially the second of his two recordings, with the Saint Petersburg Cappella on Chant du Monde.

William Hedley

Rostropovich in Rachmaninov…but there are more satisfying performances available.