Sergey RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
All-Night Vigil (Vespers), Op. 37 (1915) [62:31]
Latvian Radio Choir/Sigvards Klava
rec. May 2011, St John’s Church, Riga
ONDINE ODE 1206-5 SACD [62:31]
The Latvian Radio Choir directed by Sigvards Klava has a track record in Rachmaninov, their recording of The Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom Op.31 having already been given a muted welcome by Gavin Dixon (see review). Gavin poses the question “how Russian does a choir have to be to pull off Rachmaninov’s choral music?” There is also the question, “how Russian a choir do you want for Rachmaninov’s choral music?”
The All-Night Vigil has a myriad of different versions available, and your taste in vocal style will have everything to say about which kinds of performance you will prefer over the long term. The St Petersburg Chamber Choir with soloist Olga Borodina originally on the Philips label and now repackaged for Decca is a fine example of full-blooded Russian singing, laden with expressive vibrato and capable of making the hairs stand on the nape of the neck. This is a genuinely affecting choral sound and a remarkable musical experience, but do you want Olga Borodina’s ‘wobbly’ solos? On the other side of the coin, do you want the King’s College Choir/Stephen Cleobury on EMI with their pure ecclesiastical lines?
The Latvian Radio Choir is somewhere in between these two, with a full and expressive sound generated by a warmly natural choral tone - a certain amount of vibrato in other words, though by no means as pronounced as you might anticipate from a Russian choir. They are closer to King’s College than St Petersburg, though the linguistic pronunciations sound convincing enough. Individual voices rarely if ever emerge from the choral texture which is good, though the resultant quality is one of homogeneity rather than extravagantly distinctive character. The low bass tones are present when required, though not emphasised. Solo singing is done by un-named choral members and is distinguished, idiomatically well suited to the music and highly polished.
So, what we have here is a very beautiful recording of Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil, and one you can put on late in the evening confident you won’t be dealt any shocks. Is this what you are looking for? I for one will be very happy to have this as one version of Rachmaninov’s finest choral work, but it is by no means the only one, not really ticking enough of the emotional satisfaction boxes required for the full Vespers experience. Each time I want to feel the tear ducts prickle behind my eyes or feel my heart swell within my chest it’s that St Petersburg recording directed by Nikolai Korniev which keeps bringing me back. It’s not perfect and I don’t always want this kind of OTT experience, but once you’ve heard it the alternatives will always seem a little pale and gentle by comparison. In its two CD version you also get a very fine performance of The Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom as well so it’s worth seeking out. There is another recording by Korniev on the Pentatone label which presents a more direct SACD competitor to this Ondine recording. This one comes in at a total of 49:22 compared to Klava’s 62:31, so you can guess at some of the differences. The Pentatone recording sounds smaller-scale and less rough-and ready than the older Philips/Decca one, but I don’t prefer it. The solo singing is less distinctive but also less distinguished, and I think once you’ve heard the rather soggy Bless the Lord, O My Soul second track you’ll be putting this version gently back on the shelf and seeking further.
Returning to the Latvian Radio Choir there is a lot to be said for choral singing of such poise and refinement. There’s plenty of dynamic range and expressive depth here, and, having had this recording around for a while I doubt you’ll want to relinquish it easily. The relaxed tempi and beautifully modulated sound all have a cumulative effect which is life enhancing. Rachmaninov will certainly not have had such a purpose in mind for this music, but put your feet up, pour a glass of port, close your eyes, and tell me there’s somewhere else you’d rather be.
Somewhere else you’d rather be?
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