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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
All-Night Vigil, Op. 37 (1915) [51.55]
West German Radio Choir/Nicolas Fink
rec. 24-27 June 2013, Kunststation St. Peter, Cologne, Germany
CARUS 83.471 [51.55]  

Whenever I encounter a new recorded performance of the All-Night Vigil, I generally turn first to the short, seventh movement, “The Six Psalms”. A simple, stepwise chant, heard first in unison from the sopranos and altos, is soon embellished with bell-like chords in multiple divisions in the other voices. On the third page the composer transforms these into an astonishing carillon that closes on a piled-up chord of no fewer than eleven voices, marked crescendo/decrescendo. In this new performance from the Cologne-based, 45-strong West German Radio Choir, conductor Nicholas Fink sets off at a no-nonsense Andante, just as the score demands. But as early as the fourth bar the composer marks a slower tempo, which Fink ignores. “Slower still”, we read, three bars later, but Fink ignores that too. The singing is superb, and the bells ring out splendidly, but the held chord that closes the passage is swiftly cut off, as if the conductor wants to avoid any suggestion of indulgence. When you compare this to the St. Petersburg State Cappella Choir under Vladislav Chernushenko (tricky to find: my copy is on IM Lab IMLCD032), you’re in another world. Chernushenko begins at pretty much the same tempo as Fink, but he observes closely Rachmaninov’s tempo changes. This begins to yield fruit at bar 8, where you can relish the second basses’ inexorable descent, by nine powerful steps, to a low E flat. The eleven-voice chord is then held to extreme length, with a second crescendo that arrives just when you think the choir can’t give any more, and the diminuendo that follows is stunning in its duration and control. This is choral singing so miraculously accomplished that it seems unfair to use it as a comparison. Even so, the Latvian Radio Choir and Sigvards Kļava come close (review). Theirs is a both less indulgent and more refined, and the superb recording from St John’s Church in Riga is superior to the old Chant du Monde sound. Despite the fine singing, the German choir’s interpretation of this piece sounds sadly perfunctory when compared to either of the earlier performances. The timings tell their own story: Kļava takes 2.33 over it, whilst Chernushenko needs 3.11. Fink, on the other hand, despatches it in 1.55.

The preceding “Rejoice, O Virgin”, perhaps the best-known passage of the work, is marked Andante moderato, and the composer’s autograph score carries further indications showing that he wanted a flowing tempo. Almost all performances of this movement are slow, pleasing to many listeners, perhaps, though others, myself included, prefer something less ponderous and marmoreal. These three performances are all too slow. The Russian choir delivers a stupendous crescendo during the whole bar preceding the entry of the basses in the second section, and the climax of the movement would move mountains. The German choir is much cooler, but this is an affecting performance none the less, provided the slow tempo doesn’t bother you. The Latvians steer a middle course between the two.

A few general observations will give the flavour of the rest of this latest performance. The second movement, “Bless the Lord, O My Soul”, is beautifully done, but turn to either comparative version and the difference is telling. Kļava is the slowest of the three, but tempo is only part of the story. There is a stillness about the performance of this movement that is most moving. Note that Kļava inserts passages from the celebrant here and at other points in the work, which you may not want. He also allots the solo passages to groups of singers from the choir; this is sanctioned by the score for the tenor but not for the alto. I find it works very well, but many will prefer the German soloists, each of whom projects the solo passages with much character and beauty of tone, and without the excessive vibrato often encountered in Russian performances. The tenor, in particular, Kwon-Shik Lee, is excellent in the long ninth movement, which is also very successful overall. In the preceding movement the melodic line is given out by the altos and basses in octaves, but the balance as recorded is not to the altos’ advantage. The basses also rather overpower the tenors in the tenth movement. In the eleventh movement the two main thematic groups are directed to be sung with the same basic pulse. Fink, in common with many other interpreters, ignores this indication, taking a faster tempo for the lighter, second refrain. The penultimate movement is beautifully calm and poised. Tuning is excellent throughout, though the group doesn’t quite rise to the Latvians’ exalted standards. You would have to be a very critical listener indeed to be bothered by this, however, and in any event the Russian performance is far from perfect in that respect.

The St Petersburg performance features superhuman choral singing, and must find its place in any collection of recorded performances of this sublime masterpiece. Lovers of the work might well seek out the reading from a Finnish group, the Key Ensemble and Teemu Honkanen (Fuga 9353), and not only for the extra, unauthorised bass notes that include a low G, a full octave below the bottom line of the bass clef. I find the Latvian performance the most consistently satisfying of all, with the added compensation of the ravishing sound of that magnificent choir. But for those who find the Russians too hot-headed, and wish that the Finns and the Latvians had gone a step or two farther in cooling the composer’s remarkable ardour, this beautifully sung German performance might just do the trick.

William Hedley



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