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Sergei RACHMANINOFF (1873-1943) All-Night Vigil, Op 37 (1915)
Mariya Berezovska (mezzo-soprano); Dmitry Ivanchenko (tenor); Vadim Gan (bass); Gloriae Dei Cantores with members of The St Romanos Cappella, The Patriarch Tikhon Choir and The Washington Master Chorale/Peter Jermihov
rec. The Church of the Transfiguration, Orleans, USA; June 2015
Russian text (Cyrillic and transliterated) and English translation included GLORIAE DEI CANTORES SACD GDCD063 [66:34]
Founded in 1988, Gloriae Dei Cantores is a choir based at the Church of the Transfiguration, Orleans, MA where they sing weekly services in addition to a busy concert and touring schedule. They’ve made quite a number of recordings over the years, several of which I’ve either bought or reviewed; these have impressed me. This new recording of Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil is something different, though, in that the choir is under the leadership of a guest conductor, Peter Jermihov, and is joined by members of three other ensembles.
I think I’m right in saying that the members of Gloriae Dei Cantores are not full-time professional singers but that their colleagues on this recording are drawn from professional choirs. I base this assumption on a statement in the booklet by Peter Jermihov that the intention of this recording project was “to coalesce a group of professional singers around a core ensemble (itself an acknowledged professional-level choir)….the Gloriae Dei Cantores.” At least two of the three choirs from which guest singers have been drawn are specialists in this sort of repertoire. Jermihov himself is clearly an expert in this field. He’s American born, the son of Russian emigrés, and among his teachers was the legendary Il’ya Musin. The ensemble which he founded, the St Romanos Cappella, specialises in liturgical music with a particular commitment to East-West cultural exchange.
We listened to the first three movements of the Vigil as part of the most recent MusicWeb International Listening Studio session and we were impressed both by the recording itself and by the performance. Consequently, when I sat down to do a detailed appraisal I thought an appropriate comparison would be another recording emanating from the USA: this was the Chandos recording conducted by Charles Bruffy which so impressed Nick Barnard and me back in 2015. It’s worth taking note of the forces deployed on the respective recordings. Bruffy combines the two professional choirs of which he’s the conductor, namely the Phoenix Chorale and the Kansas City Chorale. The result is a choir of 56 singers (12/13/15/16) and the results are technically superb. Peter Jermihov’s combined choir is somewhat larger; it numbers 75 (19/19/15/22) and slightly less than half of these (35) are members of the professional choirs.
Before discussing how the two ensembles compare it’s also relevant to mention the recorded sound. The Gloriae Dei Cantores recording has been engineered by Keith O. Johnson. I’ve heard and been greatly impressed by a number of his past recordings, mainly for the Reference Recordings label, though to the best of my recollection these have been recordings of orchestral rather than choral music. Here Johnson has the choir set back at a realistic distance: I had the sense that the choir was positioned in the sanctuary of the church and that I was listening from one of the front rows of pews. The Chandos engineers balance Bruffy’s choir rather more closely – though not excessively so – and so their sound has more impact and presence. Once I started making my comparisons I had to turn down the volume control a couple of notches for the Chandos recording but at that setting I got excellent results from both discs. Both discs are hybrid SACDs but in order to make A/B comparisons I played the Chandos disc through my CD player while continuing to experience the Gloriae Dei Cantores disc as an SACD on my other machine. I have to say that even .listening to the Chandos “only” as a CD the results were highly impressive.
Neither conductor is afraid to treat the music spaciously but as a general rule where there are differences of tempo it’s Bruffy who is inclined towards more expansive speeds. His version plays for 75:34, some 9 minutes slower overall than Jermihov. I recognise that some may find Bruffy’s approach a little too indulgent. For my part I find his performance compelling and though Nick Barnard was absolutely right to point out that Bruffy’s isn’t the only way to perform this work I completely agree with his verdict that the Bruffy recording is, in Nick’s words, “a magnificent achievement.”
Jermihov’s two principal soloists, Mariya Berezovska and Dmitry Ivanchenko, are both soloists with the National Opera of Ukraine. Berezovska offers a big, warm mezzo sound in her solo in ‘Bless the Lord, my Soul’ (movement 2): she sings this most expressively and the choral accompaniment is beautiful, the high voices wonderfully ethereal. Ivanchenko is very fine, especially in the famous solo in ‘Now Lettest Thou’ (movement 5) where the sappy, ringing timbre of his voice is ideal for the music and the demanding tessitura is no problem to him at all. In this movement he, too, benefits from fine choral support; the gently rocking choral figures in the opening pages are the aural equivalent of swinging censers. Jermihov’s third soloist, the bass Vadim Gan, delivers the priestly incantations imposingly. Bruffy uses members of his choir for the solos. All do very well indeed – his mezzo has a little more edge to her tone than does Berezovska, which has some advantages - but, unsurprisingly, they lack the unique Slavic timbre.
The sound produced by Jermihov’s choir is marvellous. In particular, the basses consistently provide a firm foundation, even when singing quietly. The basses are quietly sonorous at the end of ‘Bless the Lord, my Soul’ and their descent to the soft bottom B flat at the end of ‘Now Lettest Thou’ is sure-footed. That said, Bruffy’s basses are also excellent and the Chandos recording makes their sound a little more present. Both choirs are scrupulous in their attention to detail and offer satisfyingly wide dynamic ranges. Jermihov leads a rapt account of ‘Rejoice, Virgin’ (movement 6) in which his choir demonstrates commendable dynamic control. In this movement Bruffy is daringly slow: perhaps he’s just a bit too slow, but the effect is suitably reverential. His performance is mesmerizingly beautiful and superbly controlled. It’s noticeable that in the Chandos recording the choral sound is splendidly focussed at the climax of this movement. By contrast, here and elsewhere, the Gloriae Dei Cantores climaxes are marginally less focussed but I think that’s an entirely natural consequence of the acoustic in which the performance has been recorded and to me it sounds wholly realistic
In ‘The Lesser Doxology’ (movement 7) the music is magically hushed for most of the time. There’s a lovely clarity in the Bruffy performance – the singing is very delicate. You don’t get quite as much clarity in the Jermihov performance because the singers are further away but this distancing is very appealing. Bruffy’s performance is highly nuanced; the delivery of the second part of the piece (“Lord, open Thou my lips…”) is unforgettably beautiful. After so much contemplative singing the faster pace and joyfulness of ‘Praise the name of the Lord’ (movement 8) is a welcome contrast and Jermihov’s singers do this music very well indeed, investing the rhythms with plenty of life. The Magnificat (movement 11) is another success for Jermihov; there’s an ethereal lightness to the way the recurring refrain is sung. Jermihov takes the first half of the next movement, ‘The Great Doxology’ at a swifter pace than Bruffy. I think Jermihov’s approach is better suited to the spirit of both the words and the music; after all, this is the text of the Gloria in the Roman rite. In the second half of this movement the respective conductors’ approaches are much closer to each other.
After two troparia movements giving thanks for the Resurrection – both of which are marvellously dome by both conductors – the Vigil ends with ‘To Thee, the Victorious Leader’ (movement 15). Jermihov prefaces this with a priestly incantation which Bruffy omits. Gloriae Dei Cantores and their colleagues bring their performance of Rachmaninoff’s great masterpiece to a joyful, celebratory conclusion by singing this movement buoyantly and in full-throated fashion.
I should say a word about the presentation of this new release. The disc comes with a substantial booklet which contains the full texts, clearly laid out, and extensive, authoritative notes by Peter Jermihov. The booklet also contains a copious number of colour illustrations.
Everyone who loves the All-Night Vigil will have different expectations of how it should sound in performance Some, for example, will prefer the unique sound of an authentic Russian or Eastern European choir. Just recently I found much to admire in a recording of the work by the late John Scot and the choir of St Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue (review). That offers a very different perspective on the work as compared with Jermihov or Bruffy because it uses an all-male choir with trebles on the top line. It’s instructive to be reminded by Peter Jermihov that the Moscow Synodal Choir, which gave the first performance of the All-Night Vigil in 1915 and “likely formed a sound ideal for Rachmaninoff” was an all-male choir with trebles. I liked the cutting edge of the New York trebles but listening again to the work in the Jermihov and Bruffy recordings shows that John Scott’s choir can’t match them for sheer amplitude, especially in the bass section.
The Bruffy recording is a very special experience, both as a performance and in sonic terms and it continues to be my yardstick in this glorious work. That said, Peter Jermihov and his distinguished combined choir offer a very fine performance indeed and the excellent sound, though different in conception to the Chandos version, suits the performance very well indeed. I think Keith O. Johnson’s engineering complements the music very well indeed.
This new disc is a splendid achievement and I’ve found listening to it an uplifting and rewarding experience.