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Serge RACHMANINOFF (1873-1943)
All-Night Vigil Op.37 (1915) [75:34]
Julia Scozzafava (mezzo), Frank Fleschner (tenor), Bryan Taylor, Paul Davidson, Toby Vaughn Kidd, Joseph Warner (bass),
Phoenix Chorale, Kansas City Chorale/ Charles Bruffy
rec. Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle, Kansas City, Kansas, USA, 24-26 May 2014
CHANDOS CHSA5148 SACD [75:34]

What a glorious work the Rachmaninoff All-Night Vigil is. Even today, with many versions of this major composition - and its companion piece the Liturgy St. John Chrysostom - in the catalogue - it languishes in relative anonymity for the wider listening public. Yet it was written at the height of Rachmaninoff's pre-Revolutionary powers in 1915, book-ended by the 2nd Sonata and the set of Op.39 Etude Tableaux. To quote the excellent liner this work - "stands as the crowning achievement of the Golden Age of Russian Orthodox sacred choral music". This Golden Age lasted from 1880 until the 1917 Revolution and inspired many well-known composers to produce works in the idiom from Tchaikovsky to Rimsky-Korsakov and Tcherepnin.

For all these composers, including Rachmaninoff, mining the ancient resources of Russian sacred unison chants, was another way of establishing a unique National musical identity. Of the fifteen movements that comprise this work, ten draw on pre-existing ancient chants whilst the remaining five are wholly original compositions. Rachmaninoff's particular skill is to blur the definition between these differing sections giving the whole work an extraordinary sense of organic unity. Indeed there are several aspects of the aesthetic of this genre of music that chime particularly closely with Rachmaninoff. Clearly his wider and enduring fame rests on his compositions for and involving piano but it is very important to acknowledge that an abiding influence and stimulus throughout his musical life was orthodox chant. His Symphony No.1 can almost be considered a study in the symphonic potential of chants. Jump forward to his last orchestral work the Symphonic Dances and, lo and behold, aside from the oft-noticed Dies Irae the closing pages of that great work makes extended use of the chant used by Rachmaninoff in the ninth movement of these Vespers. Likewise, his lyrical preference for stepwise melody is wholly in tune with orthodox chant.

This performance on Chandos is given by the combined forces of the Phoenix Chorale and the Kansas City Chorale under the direction of Charles Bruffy. Quite simply, this is some of the most remarkably refined and technically stunning choral singing I have ever heard. The choir is not overly large; fifty-six voices split 12 sopranos, 13 altos, 15 tenors and 16 basses but it is large enough for this level of all but perfect ensemble, intonation and balance to be staggeringly impressive. Another feature of this choir's singing is the control they exhibit across their entire dynamic range. They can sing a superbly poised pianissimo but then produce a crescendo to a stunning wall of fortissimo sound without any hardening of tone or loss of internal balance. I was struck by the similarity to the effect an organ achieves as its swell box opens. I cannot think of any other choir I have heard who are able to execute this with such impeccable results. Indeed, such is the level of refinement that it could be argued that the resulting sound is almost inhuman in its purity and sophistication. Add to that a vocal trick of phased breathing - which means an unbroken flow of the musical line - and the sense of other-worldly bliss is complete. The result is a sense of ecstatic rolling musical lines. However, it is important to note that this is just one - albeit hugely impressive - approach to this masterly work. By emphasising the mellifluous qualities in the music and concentrating on removing any sense of the individual from the choral group there is a degree of dehumanising of the music.

This is strikingly apparent if direct comparison is made with any of the several East European sourced performances - Wikipedia lists over thirty recordings having been made in the last fifty years. The ones I had to hand are the well-regarded Phillips recording from the St.Petersburg Chamber Choir and Nikolai Korniev which features mezzo Olga Brodina and tenor Vladimir Moztowoy in the small but important solo vocal roles, and the National Academic Choir of Ukraine 'Dumka' under Yevhan Savchuk on Brilliant Classics. This former recording was made in an atmospherically vast acoustic particularly and points up the interpretative extremes. There is a supplicatory urgency about the St Petersburg performance - look no further than the opening movement; 1:57 in St. Petersburg and all of 3:27 in Kansas - with Slavic vibrato firmly to the fore that stamps this Decca version as firmly Russian in origin. Worth noting that the Kansas performance - alone amongst the versions I have access to - prefaces the opening movement with an introduction sung by the celebrants; the deacon and the priest. This accounts for the first 55 seconds - but Bruffy expands the movement proper by a good half minute in comparison to Korniev.

I know it is a dull cliché to mention the Slavonic character of an Eastern European choir or soloist but there is a very specific timbre and style of singing that means it is both a cliché and true. Another well commented on characteristic are the low-lying bass lines. In the famous fifth movement - in the Western Liturgy the Nunc Dimittis - Rachmaninoff requires the bass voices to descend to a B flat over two octaves below middle C. This is a moment of pure liturgical theatre and it has to be said that in fact the Kansas basses are even more resonant than their Russian counterparts. When making my comparisons I was not a little surprised to realise that the Ukrainian performance on Brilliant transposes this movement up. I have no idea if there is any composer-authorised performance practice which sanctions this but it does seem rather contrary to the dramatic effect Rachmaninoff was after. This was the movement that he requested be performed at his funeral.

The approaches are so fundamentally different as to almost preclude comparisons - I genuinely enjoy both and feel that each throws a contrasting but valid light on the work. The Russian performance underlines the concept of the work as an active part of the church's liturgy and the interaction between Man and his God, an ongoing, very human dialogue if you will. The Kansas performance strikes me as more of an aid to personal meditation - there is a transcendent rapture caught here that is truly remarkable and utterly beautiful. Bruffy and his Kansas City Chorale recorded the other great Rachmaninoff liturgical work - the Liturgy St. John Chrysostom - for Nimbus getting on for a decade ago (review). Admirers of that impressive performance will certainly want to acquire this one which I think represents an even finer achievement and certainly a progression towards their stated goal of being "the preeminent model for American Choral music by redefining standards of musical excellence".

Bruffy's soloists are drawn from the choir and are predictably fine. The recording venue of the Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle in Kansas City is suitably resonantly appropriate. The choir is recorded quite closely but with the cathedral's generous acoustic providing them with a halo of pleasing warmth. I was not able to listen to this disc in its SACD format. Even in standard CD the engineering is very fine indeed but I can imagine this being even more impressive in the higher-resolution form. The liner provides Chandos' standard tri-lingual format with interesting and detailed essays on the historical and stylistic context of the work and the work itself by Vladimir Morosan. What Morosan fails to examine at all is the place of the work in the context of Rachmaninoff's output which I feel is a significant omission. Apparently it was his favourite work along the choral symphony The Bells Op.35 and the significance of these sung chants for a nominally keyboard-orientated composer cannot be underestimated. One other curiosity regarding the liner; full texts are supplied but in the original Cyrillic text with an English translation only. There is no transliterated version which to someone such as myself who cannot read Cyrillic makes the English version alone nearly pointless when trying to follow the performance.

Any admirers of this composer who do not know this work should make a point of hearing it simply because the music it contains runs as a spine through his entire composing life. Admirers of the art of choral singing should hear this disc for the astonishing brilliance of its execution.

Not the only way of performing this music for sure, but a magnificent achievement.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: John Quinn (Recording of the Month)




 




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