RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873–1943)
All-night Vigil, Op.37 (1915)
Bryan Taylor, Paul Davidson, Toby Vaughn Kidd, Joseph Warner (bass); Julia Scozzafava (mezzo); Frank Fleschner, Bryan Pinkall (tenor)
Phoenix Chorale; Kansas City Chorale/Charles Bruffy
rec. Cathedral of St Peter the Apostle, Kansas City, Kansas, 2014. DDD/DSD
Russian text (Cyrillic) and English translation included.
CHANDOS CHSA5148 SACD [75:34]
I’ve previously heard and admired several Chandos discs on which Charles Bruffy has conducted either the Phoenix Chorale (review ~ review) or the Kansas City Chorale (review) He’s also brought the two choirs together before to make a wonderful recording of another Russian Orthodox work, Grechaninov’s Passion Week (review). I see that some years ago he also recorded with the Kansas City Chorale, for Nimbus, Rachmaninov’s Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom Op.31 (1910) (review), though I’ve not heard that disc.
When I received this SACD for review I set out with the intention of making detailed comparisons with two of the other versions of the All-night Vigil that are in my collection. One is the long-admired 1990 Hyperion recording by Matthew Best and the Corydon Singers (CDA20460 or CDA66460 or CDA30016) and the other – for an authentic Russian timbre – is a recording by the St Petersburg Cappella under Vladislav Chernushenko (Harmonia Mundi Saison Russe RUS 788050) (review). However, each time I played this new Chandos disc I’m afraid I was so seduced by the beauty and sheer quality of the singing that my resolve rather crumbled and I continued listening to Bruffy and his combined choir. This is certainly a performance that proves that this music can be performed very satisfactorily by a Western choir despite the lack of an authentic Slavic timbre.
It’s worth saying that the choral forces assembled here number 56 singers (12/13/15/16), all of them professionals. Perhaps it’s because he has such expert singers at his disposal that Charles Bruffy is able to take a particularly spacious view of Rachmaninov’s score. His overall timing of 75:34 is by some distance the longest traversal of the work that I can recall hearing; by comparison Best takes 66:27 and Chernushenko takes 61:51. In some of the movements Bruffy’s rivals treat the music with greater urgency but I can honestly say that not once did I feel that Bruffy was taking the music too slowly. Rather, his expansive view invests the settings with a prayerful quality that is most becoming. Also he is perfectly willing and able to inject urgency into the interpretation when it’s appropriate.
Rachmaninov’s All-night Vigil conflates three Orthodox services: Vespers (movements 1-6); Matins (movements 7-14); and First Hour (movement 15). The booklet contains an exemplary essay by Vladimir Morosan in which he lays out the background to Rachmaninov’s composition and discusses the work itself.
The performance begins with an incantation and blessing, sonorously sung by two basses, Brian Taylor and Paul Davidson as Deacon and Priest. When the full choir begins to sing ‘Come let us worship God, our King’ one is immediately struck by the marvellously full, rich and well-integrated choral sound. Equally apparent is how satisfyingly the sound of the choir has been captured by the engineers within the pleasingly resonant acoustic of the Cathedral of St Peter the Apostle. This is a most encouraging start.
Things only get better. ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul’, spaciously paced, benefits from a fine mezzo soloist, Julia Scozzafava, who sings expressively and with an appropriately full timbre. Like all the other soloists she is drawn from the choir. Around her singing her colleagues provide beautifully calibrated tone, the singing quiet but firm. The resonant sound of the basses impresses though their sound is not overdone – the balances are always expertly judged throughout this performance. The basses are famously put to the test at the end of the fifth movement, the text known in the Roman rite as the Nunc dimittis. Their descent to the cavernous bottom B flat at the end of this piece is securely negotiated and very well controlled: these basses seem to make no great effort but one is just aware that they’ve reached the bottom unobtrusively yet firmly. Earlier in this movement Frank Fleschner impresses in the tenor solo. He seems untroubled either by Rachmaninov’s demanding tessitura or by the expansive tempo that Bruffy adopts.
The best-known movement, ‘Rejoice, O Virgin’, is raptly sung and rises to a majestic climax. The ninth movement, ‘Blessed art Thou, O Lord’, uses some wonderful imagery to hymn the Resurrection. Rachmaninov uses different choral textures for each narrative verse and the changing textures are well conveyed here. Towards the end Bruffy responds very successfully to the increased jubilation of the last two stanzas. In the setting of the Magnificat – one of several movements in which Bruffy is more spacious overall than Best or Chernushenko – Bruffy and his singers point most effectively the contrast between the light, airy textures of the refrain, ‘More honourable than the Cherubim’, and the more richly-hued verses of the Canticle itself.
The Great Doxology comes off superbly here. This lengthy text contains first the words that form the Gloria in the Roman Mass and then continue and expand the hymn of praise. Bruffy’s choir sings all of this extremely well, not least the exciting triple doxology at the end. The penultimate piece, the Troparion, brings the music of Matins to a conclusion. The performance is slow, reverent and meditative; the sonority of the choir is quite wonderful. The Vigil concludes with a text commonly sung at the First Hour, ‘To Thee, victorious leader’. This joyful piece brings this marvellous performance to a celebratory end.
In the end I did make some comparisons between this new recording and the two versions I mentioned earlier. The St Petersburg recording is completely outclassed, I’m afraid. The sound is nowhere near as good as on this Chandos disc – I don’t know when the St Petersburg performance was recorded but it’s at least 20 years old. However, the crucial difference lies in the quality of the singing. The St Petersburg choir simply can’t hold a candle to their American rivals; their tone is not as rich and the sopranos in particular tend to sound quavery. The Corydon Singers can and do compete with their Chandos rivals in terms of the quality of their singing. The Hyperion recording is good but it sets the choir at a slightly greater distance from the microphones; the Chandos sound has more impact. As a general rule Matthew Best takes a swifter view of the score as compared with Charles Bruffy. Some listeners may prefer, for example, Best’s somewhat lighter and more flowing conception of the Great Doxology (see Brian Wilson's comment in the recent Download News). Personally, I find much to admire in the approach of both conductors. While I retain great respect for the Matthew Best performance I think Charles Bruffy’s recording now has the edge overall.
The Chandos sound is marvellous. The engineers have conveyed just the right amount of resonance around the singing while the choir itself is immaculately presented. Is there a flaw with this new issue? Just one: the text is given only in Cyrillic as well as in English translation. A transliterated Russian text would have been infinitely preferable given that many collectors won’t be able to read Russian.
Some may find Charles Bruffy’s approach to this score too expansive. I can only urge you not to be deterred by such reservations. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard choral singing of this quality. This is a very beautiful and inspired reading of Rachmaninov’s wonderful settings and I found it very rewarding indeed.
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