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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
All-night Vigil, Op. 37 (1915) [51:44]
The Theotokos, Ever-Vigilant in Prayer (1893) [7:52]
Gert-Jan Alders (bass); Matthew Minter, Eyjólfur Eyjólfsson (tenors); Pierrette de Zwaan (alto)
Netherlands Radio Choir/Kaspars Putniņš
rec. October/November 2012, Studio MCO5, Hilversum, the Netherlands
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet includes sung texts (Cyrillic and English)
BIS BIS-2039 SACD [60:20]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
All-night Vigil, Op. 37 (1915)
Bryan Taylor, Paul Davidson, Toby Vaughn Kidd, Joseph Warner (basses); Frank Fleschner, Bryan Pinkall (tenors); Julia Scozzafava (mezzo)
Phoenix Chorale; Kansas City Chorale/Charles Bruffy
rec. 2014, Cathedral of St Peter the Apostle, Kansas City, Kansas, USA
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet includes sung texts (Cyrillic and English)

There are times when I think we are living in a golden age of a cappella singing, both secular and sacred. A number of first-rate recordings come to mind: from Norway, Immortal Nystedt; from Denmark, music by Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen; from Latvia, Peteris Vasks’ Plainscapes; from Russia, Valentin Silvestrov’s Sacred Songs; and from the USA Alexander Grechaninov’s Passion Week and Conspirare’s The Sacred Spirit of Russia. What really impresses me about those American choirs is that they sound so idiomatic that it’s hard to believe they’re not native Russians.

I must single out the Phoenix and Kansas singers in the Grechaninov; indeed, that was one of my Recordings of the Year in 2007. At the time of writing – February 2016 – those forces, led by the indefatigable Charles Bruffy, had just been awarded a Grammy for their recording of Rachmaninov’s All-night Vigil. Somehow I’d missed that one, so I decided to assess it in tandem with this new version from Kaspars Putniņš and the Netherlands Radio Choir. I was pleased to note that the latter is produced and engineered by Jens Braun, whose recent recordings for BIS are among the best in the business. The Chandos release was recorded by SoundMirror, the company behind Manfred Honeck's Pittsburgh successes and, most recently, Thierry Fischer's Mahler 1 from Utah.

Rachmaninov’s All-night Vigil - sometimes erroneously referred to as his Vespers – is in fact a hybrid of three Russian Orthodox services; Vespers (movements 1 to 6), Matins (7 to 14) and First Hour (15). There have been a number of well-regarded recordings of the piece in recent years, two of which spring to mind: the first is from Sigvards Klava and the Latvian Radio Choir, the second from Paul Hillier and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. Those are fine Baltic ensembles, expertly led, and their collections are always worth your time and money. Besides, they tend to get top-notch recordings, too.

The Netherlands Radio Choir, founded after the Second World War, is a 68-strong group with a number of world premičres to their name. That makes them a good fit with Kaspars Putniņš, chief conductor of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, who is a tireless promoter of contemporary choral works. That said, his repertoire is wide-ranging, so Rachmaninov is well within his artistic purview. Incidentally, this recording includes a filler, The Theotokos, Ever-Vigilant in Prayer, which Rachmaninov composed in 1893. A precursor to the Vigil in style it burns with a quick, fierce flame. An intriguing little bonus.

First impressions of Putniņš’ Vigil are entirely positive. The bass and tenor soloists – Gert-Jan Alders and Matthew Minter respectively – are ideally spaced at the start of O come let us worship, and the choir’s response is both refined and radiant. The alto Pierrette de Zwaan – who appears in Praise the Lord, O my soul – is just as ravishing, the choral cadences gentle but telling. Goodness, this is singing of the highest order; weight and blend are well nigh perfect, as is the open, airy sound. This may be a studio recording, but there’s breadth and depth aplenty, with no obscuring echoes. Indeed, the ‘goose-bump quotient’ is very high, even at this early stage.

There’s an ear-pricking contrast between the men and women in Blessed is the man – what a lovely, heartfelt dialogue – and the ever-sensitive Putniņš grades and shades the music with seamless skill. The fibrillations of O gladsome Light are a joy to hear, and tenor Eyjólfur Eyjólfsson's voice rises like swirls of incense both here and in the Nunc dimittis. Also, choral climaxes are superbly focused, with no hint of grit or glare. Vespers comes to a close with the now joyous, now calming, O Virgin Mother of God, rejoice!
That is going to be a tough act to follow. At the start Bruffy’s bass and tenor are clearly in a larger acoustic, and although his choirs are fewer in number – 56 – the rounder, fuller sound they produce makes them seem more plentiful. The sheer projection and weight of these singers comes as something of a shock after the comparative restraint and lightness of Putniņš’ team. SoundMirror's wonderfully sonorous recording reinforces that impression. As for Bruffy’s mezzo, Julia Scozzafava, she's not quite as striking as de Zwaan in Praise the Lord, O my soul; the latter sings with a touch more character and conviction here.

Minor caveats aside, this is a splendid account of Rachmaninov's masterpiece. In particular, I was pleased to be reacquainted with the warmth and gravitas that so thrilled and moved me in Passion Week; Putniņš’ singers can’t match that, but then their performance has a cooler, loftier aspect that’s just as compelling. More controversial is Bruffy’s very expansive reading. He clocks in at a whopping 75:34; compare that with Klava (62:31), Hillier (53:56) and Putniņš (51:44). That’s quite a disparity, but as with Klemperer and Celibidache in Mahler’s and Bruckner’s Seventh respectively Bruffy’s Vigil defies logic and the clock and emerges as something rather special.

At this stage I’d say these two recordings are complementary, and that both are well worth hearing. However, there’s something extra in the Dutch performance – a palpable, all-encompassing humility, perhaps – that resonates with me in a way that the American one doesn’t. It helps that the BIS recording is so natural; with it comes a thrilling intimacy that's harder to achieve in a larger-than-life presentation such as SoundMirror's. Indeed, listening to these two releases, cheek by jowl as it were, is a startling reminder of just how much engineering and venue choices affect one’s perceptions of a given performance.

Matins begins with Glory be to God on high, a short and deceptively gentle hymn whose contours are so lovingly mapped by Putniņš and his choir. Praise ye the name of the Lord is rather more fervent; there, too, you’ll hear singing of remarkable range and power. Yes, musical shape and blend do matter, but it’s the singers’ degree of engagement with the texts that separates a good performance from a great one. Just listen to Blessed art thou, O Lord, which the Dutch deliver with overwhelming intensity. Once again, the smaller scale of this recording encourages a sense of connection that, in turn, makes for a very profound and personal musical experience. And what telling interplay, what unanimity, they bring to Having beheld the Resurrection.

It’s easy to see why Rachmaninov requested that the Nunc dimittis be played at his funeral, for it's one of the most luminous things he ever wrote. That said, the Magnificat is rather lovely too. Putniņš’ control of the music's ebb and surge is masterly; ditto his deft way with the rhythms of Glory be to God on high and O queen victorious. Everything about this performance is judicious and perfectly proportioned, and that includes the recording. In other circumstances such an approach may seem tentative - anodyne, even - but not here. In fact, it all feels so intuitive, so right, that it’s difficult to imagine the Vigil being sung or recorded in any other way.

Of course that’s not true, for this piece yields to a variety of interpretations. As before, switching back to Bruffy requires some readjustment. Suddenly we are confronted with a rich, rubied choral sound; not only that, Bruffy's more leisurely pace reveals the score's inner workings in a way that you won’t hear with the tighter, more compact Putniņš. For that we must be grateful, but the slight downside is that I was much more conscious of the American performance than I was of the Dutch one. In general, Bruffy's approach strikes me as more public, more overtly ceremonial, whereas Putniņš' is more private and personal. In that sense the latter's performance reminds me of a very fine Glagolitic Mass I reviewed last year; there, too, greater inwardness brings unexpected rewards.

One could argue that the Americans come closer to what one might expect to hear from a Russian choir – those soul-stirring basses, for example – and the cathedral acoustic adds an aura to the sound that you simply can’t mimic in a studio. Ultimately, though, Bruffy’s Vigil – glorious in so many ways – does feel a tad protracted towards the end. Also, his soloists just aren’t as memorable as Putniņš’. Having just written that, and still listening, the frisson generated by those dark, resonant voices in Glory be to God on high left me in sudden disarray. Really, in the presence of such splendour any cavils seem utterly redundant.

I'm pleased to report that the highest production values prevail in both these releases. That goes for the liner-notes as well; Bruffy's are by Vladimir Morosan, whose scholarly insights made The Sacred Spirit of Russia such a rewarding experience, Putniņš’ by Andrew Huth. Sung texts and translations are supplied (Cyrillic and English).

The Dutch bring emotional intensity to the Vigil, the Americans weight and beauty; you must hear both.

Dan Morgan

Previous reviews (Chandos): John Quinn and Nick Barnard



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