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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
All-night Vigil, Op.37
Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano), Adam Tunnicliffe (tenor)
Vasari Singers/Jeremy Backhouse
rec. 2017, St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London

To mark the 60th birthday of Jeremy Backhouse, their founding conductor, the Vasari Singers have devoted the second release on their own label to a work with which they have a long and affectionate relationship, Rachmaninov’s All-night Vigil of 1915. As Backhouse writes in his preface to the disc, this is a work which is “part of the choir’s history” as well as music “close to our hearts”.

That is obvious from this fine performance. Undoubtedly this is deeply affectionate singing, the choir clearly revelling in Rachmaninov’s rich, sumptuous choral writing, and Backhouse moulding the music with tender, loving care. He draws from them the most wonderfully soft and velvety tone at the start of Nin’e otpushchayeshi which sets off the beautifully silken tenor of Adam Tunnicliffe to perfection. The movement builds to a wonderfully luminous climax and falls back to a deeply restful silence. Other moments to savour are the well-known setting of a prayer to the Virgin, Bogoroditse D’evo, which almost redefines the term pianissimo in a choral context, and the wonderfully long-breathed opening of Voskres iz groba which seems not so much to soar heavenward as to drift up into the high atmosphere like the wafting smoke of incense.

In general, however, I find this a performance which oozes affection and fondness for the music but does not always really reach into the spiritual or emotional heart of the work. The singing exudes a powerful sense of inner joy and satisfaction in the art of singing rather than in the art of Rachmaninov’s music. There is, for example, none of the sheer intensity which John Scott drew from his New York choristers on their recording released by Resonus last year, nor do the Vasari Singers exude the same buoyant ecstasy in the glorious Khvalit’e imya, Gospodi. And while the Russian diction is idiomatic enough and the Vasari basses adequately resonant in their low register, somehow this is a performance which, through the brightness, clarity and transparent security of their singing, lacks that sense of true authenticity one finds with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir (Harmonia Mundi) or the Latvian Radio Choir (Ondine).

In short, this is a recording which showcases a choir of enormous technical ability, vocal accomplishment and aural polish, and a conductor whose care and attention to detail is in no way lessened by his obvious love of the music he is directing. But it is not a recording which offers anything significant or notable to the large canon of very fine recordings of this glorious pinnacle of the unaccompanied choral repertory.

Marc Rochester

Previous review: John Quinn



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