Rachmaninov’s All Night Vigil
is generally known in English-speaking countries as the Vespers
, but the well-informed Ivan Moody tells us in his booklet note that this translation of the Russian Vsenoshchnoe bdenie
is “incorrect”. However the usage of the title Vespers
is well-established, and is not likely to be superseded any more than similar mistranslations of works such as The cunning little vixen
or The Makropoulos Affair
- neither of them, I am given to understand, literal renditions of the original Czech. Vespers
is after all the title usually employed to describe evening services in both the Anglican and Catholic liturgies.
The work first became known outside Russia from Melodiya recordings in the 1970s. For a long time the piece was regarded as the exclusive preserve of Soviet choirs, if only because the sometimes subterranean writing for the basses was considered to be beyond the capacity of non-Slavic voices. More recently the work has been taken up enthusiastically by Western singers, and this new recording by the Joyful Company of Singers has been sponsored by Lorna Perry, who also assumes the alto role. It also shuns the echoing acoustic of the Russian cathedrals featured in earlier recordings in favour of a more immediate sound. This does tend to rob Rachmaninov’s incense-laden textures of much of their mystic atmosphere. On the other hand, it is pleasant to be able to hear more of the internal harmonies in the composer’s rich scoring for the unaccompanied voices.
The Joyful Company of Singers, expanded here to 46 voices, certainly display plenty of richness in the sound they produce. Peter Broadbent takes the piece rather more quickly than usual - most notably in the setting of Blessed art Thou, O Lord
- track 9. This avoids the occasional sense which can be experienced in other performances of the work simply luxuriating and losing its sense of forward propulsion. However it has to be observed that the deep bass line, descending to a low B-flat at the end of the Nunc dimittis
(track 5), or in the Magnificat
(track 11), does lack the sheer rumbling resonance that Slavonic choirs bring to the music at these points. On the other hand again, the contributions of the two soloists - both members of the choir - display greater ease in Rachmaninov’s often high-flying melismatic lines than many more Slavic voices. It is peculiar to discover that Andrew Shepstone also sings baritone roles, since there is no sense of strain apparent here in the upper reaches … or indeed from the resonant Lorna Perry.
Most discs of the Vespers
content themselves with that work alone; but Broadbent’s speeds mean that there is plenty of room here to add Rachmaninov’s early ‘choral concerto’ O Mother of God
. With its similar use of Orthodox chant, it sounds so like the music of the Vespers
that it might also be another movement of the same work.
Rachmaninov enthusiasts will doubtless already have a recording of the Vespers
in their collection, but even for them - or for those who are allergic to the atmosphere of echoing reverence to be found in earlier recordings - this may prove to be an enjoyable new ‘take’ on the work. Neither the singing nor the acoustic could be mistaken for the product of a Russian choir or cathedral, but as a ‘western’ approach to the music this disc provides valuable new insights. Anything which helps to establish the Rachmaninov Vespers
as a central work of the twentieth century choral repertory - even the Tallis Scholars are performing the work in concert later this year - is to be warmly welcomed. Those who love the music of the late Sir John Tavener will also be able to recognise whence the more modern composer drew much of his inspiration.
No texts or translations are provided, but a transliteration of the Russian (together with an English translation) is available from the choir’s website.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
And another review ...
There used to be - perhaps there still is - a school of thought that only a Russian or Eastern European choir could do full justice to Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil. There are several recordings of this wonderful work by such choirs; the magnificent version by The Saint Petersburg Cappella is one such (review). However, there are also a number of fine performances by western choirs that are equally successful, even if the sound lacks that distinctive Slavic timbre. Examples of western choirs include at least two by British choirs: the fine version by Tenebrae (review) and the one by the Corydon Singers, which remains my own favourite (CDA66460 or CDA30016). Now here’s another British performance from Peter Broadbent and the Joyful Company of Singers.
Before even I had put the disc into the player I noticed, with a little surprise, the short playing time. Peter Broadbent’s reading of the All-Night Vigil lasts 48:40. That’s very swift when you consider that the Corydon version plays for 65:17, Tenebrae’s for 57:16 and the Saint Petersburg Cappella for 61:51. Heard in isolation, this Broadbent performance has quite a lot to commend it but comparisons are not always favourable. Actually, I hadn’t intended to make any comparisons but I had to make reference to one of the recordings in my collection in order to follow the text. Neither a transliterated text nor a translation is provided with this disc; instead the listener is referred to the choir’s website, where both are available. That’s nowhere near as convenient as having the words in the booklet and I think it’s a serious omission. As it was, the booklet from which I opted to follow the performance was the Hyperion one and inevitably I began to make some comparisons between the Joyful Company of Singers and the Corydon Singers.
The Corydon Singers is a professional choir. I’m not quite sure but I don’t believe Peter Broadbent’s choir comprises professionals. Actually, the Joyful Company emerges pretty well from the comparison. Their singing is spirited and lively while the tone that they produce is good, both in soft and loud singing. Occasionally I thought I detected that some notes were very slightly under the pitch, mainly in the soprano line, but not to such an extent as to impair one’s enjoyment. So far as I can tell - it’s many years since, as a schoolboy, I learned some Russian - their pronunciation is good; it certainly sounds convincing. It sounds as if the two choirs are of a similar size. Forty-six singers are listed in the Nimbus booklet. There isn’t a list of singers in the Hyperion booklet however, I recall attending a memorable late-night performance of the work by the Corydons in Gloucester Cathedral at the 1998 Three Choirs Festival and on that occasion they fielded an ensemble of just over fifty: I suspect a similar-sized group took part in the Hyperion recording, which was made in 1990.
It seems to me that where the Corydon performance outscores this new one at almost every turn is in the extra expansiveness in Matthew Best’s reading. Virtually without exception the individual movements play for longer in his performance, often by more than a minute, and the eleventh movement, the Magnificat, plays for 9:30 on the Hyperion disc against just 6:05 in Broadbent’s performance. At the beginning of this movement there’s dark, hushed majesty in the Corydon performance which the Joyful Company don’t quite match. Actually, the core tempo is not dissimilar in both performances. The main difference lies in the treatment of the refrain beginning ‘More honourable than the Cherubim..’ which, in the Orthodox liturgy, punctuates the text found in the Western canticle on several occasions. In the Best performance the tempo remains pretty constant in these passages whereas Broadbent presses forward. The result is that in his performance the refrain sounds more like an interpolation - or even an interruption - than I think it should.
Elsewhere the more expansive approach of Matthew Best frequently pays dividends. The very first movement has more weight and breadth in his hands than Broadbent achieves. Furthermore, there’s more evidence of expressive moulding from Best and that’s a recurring trait. That said, the opening movement is a call to worship so I can well understand why Peter Broadbent adopts a more urgent tempo.
The second movement, ‘Bless the Lord, O my Soul’, flows more obviously in Broadbent’s hands - he takes over a minute less than Best. I rather like the airy flow that Broadbent achieves; it’s not unattractive. However, Best gives the music more of a sense of solemnity. This movement features an important alto solo. Lorna Perry, one of the Joyful Company, does well here, singing with nice, full tone and clear diction. However, I feel that Joya Logan (for Best) has the edge, not least because her singing is slightly more characterful. It’s a close thing, though.
In the famous setting of the Nunc dimittis, the fifth movement, the choice between the respective soloists is much more clear cut. John Bowen, who sings for Best, has a clear, easy and plangent tone which suits the music very well. I find Broadbent’s tenor, Andrew Shepstone, less pleasing of tone and there’s a degree of uncertainty as to his pitching. Best’s soloist has his line cushioned on a dreamy, rocking bed of soft sound from the ladies of the Corydons which the Joyful Company don’t quite match. Best’s basses have a firm, deep resonance and their descent to the concluding quiet bottom B flat is hushed yet distinct and completely secure; the Joyful Company’s basses get down to the bottom note but less convincingly.
One more comparison will suffice. The last movement is joyful and energetic from the Joyful Company but the Corydons convey more, I believe. The tempo is almost identical but the rhythms are a bit more strongly enunciated by the Corydons and their singing is totally secure whereas this is one of the instances where, to my ears, there’s a suspicion that the Joyful Company’s sopranos are sometimes very slightly under the note.
I’m afraid I can’t tell you much about the ‘filler’. This is the Choral Concerto, O Mother of God ever vigilant in prayer. I’ve also seen it referred to elsewhere as O Mother of God perpetually praying. From the Joyful Company’s website I’ve learned that it’s the Kontakion for the Dormition [of the Mother of God] but that’s not mentioned in the booklet. We learn from Ivan Moody’s notes that it was written in 1890 and first performed in 1893. It’s an effective piece though not in the same class as the music of the All-Night Vigil.
Returning to the performance of the All-Night Vigil, there is, as I said earlier, much to commend this account by the Joyful Company. I suspect that Peter Broadbent was seeking to impart fervour and urgency into the music through his tempo selections and also to avoid the textures becoming too thick and heavy. If so, I think that’s a defensible standpoint and, on its own terms, this is a good version of Rachmaninov’s great choral work. However, I don’t think it offers as much as the Matthew Best performance and that, or either of the other two versions that I mentioned at the start of this review, would be a preferable choice though as an alternative view, this Nimbus disc is worth hearing.
The notes are by Ivan Moody, an expert on Orthodox liturgical music who, coincidentally, authored the notes for the Matthew Best disc also. However, the Nimbus documentation is badly flawed through the absence of texts or translations.
Previous review: Dominy Clements