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All-Night Vigil, Op. 37 (1915)
Agnieszka Rehlis (mezzo-soprano); Rafał Bartmiński (tenor); Krzysztof Drugow (bass) Choir of Podlasie Opera and Philharmonic/Violetta Bielecka
rec. 2017, Podlasie Opera and Philharmonic, Białystok, Poland DUX 1404 [55:13]
Many and varied are the available recordings of Rachmaninov’s sublime All-Night Vigil, more often than not referred to as his ‘Vespers’. Ralph Moore, reviewing recently the Decca reissue of Nikolai Korniev’s masterly reading from 1993 with the St. Petersburg Chamber Choir, favours Russian performers, and one can readily understand why. My own favourite performance is a Russian one. Here is what I wrote about it whilst reviewing another performance in another place in 2012: ‘The pacing here seems just right, but you won’t hear the miraculous crescendo/decrescendo that the St. Petersburg Cappella achieved in 1986 under Vladislav Chernushenko on a Chant de Monde disc. If only for that moment – which leaves the listener wondering if the choir is peopled by normal human beings – the older performance, now available on IM Lab IMLCD032, though difficult to find, is indispensable. It’s an extraordinarily imaginative piece of choral writing, and the Latvians do it ample justice.’ I was reviewing there what has become my other favourite recording, on Ondine, with the Latvian Radio Choir, one of the world’s greatest, under Sigvards Kłava. The sound is cleaner, with less of what Westerners such as myself might imagine to be the authentic Russian ‘soul’, but in such passages as the second movement, Kłava and his wondrous singers achieve an astonishing, irresistible sense of stillness. This is not the only virtue of a magnificent performance. Not everyone will care for the conductor’s decision to allot the solo contralto part to the alto section of the choir, but I find it works beautifully. Chernushenko is incomparable, highly expressive, perhaps excessively so at times, but it is always done with such control that I am convinced. Tuning is not quite to the standard that the Latvians achieve, but the remarkable devotional character of the performance carries all before it.
No collector can have too many versions of the All-Night Vigil, and I’m happy to say that this new version from Poland is up there with the best. A lively, powerful start sets the tone for much of the performance. There is muscle here where some groups evoke cloistered sanctity. Following the work with the score reveals examples where the conductor wilfully ignores the composer’s markings. In the second section, ‘Bless the Lord, O My Soul’, for example, many of the pianissimo markings are passed over, which is certainly a pity given the exceptionally lovely sound the choir produces throughout the performance. (I should add here that almost all conductors tend to treat this particular score as a guide rather than as indications set down on tablets of stone.) Among glorious moments, too numerous to cite in detail, you could take the closing cadence of the fourth movement, ‘Gentle Light’ (‘Gladsome Light’ in my score), where the third basses are required to drop directly from low A flat to a bottom, sepulchral C. It is exquisitely handled here, as is the celebrated, technically slightly easier, but no less impressive downward scale towards the low B flat that ends the following movement. Searching for specific examples of what makes this performance a consistent success, apart from the simple fact that it is such a pleasure to listen to, one is struck by the skill with which the conductor manages the many tempo changes in the later movements. In lesser hands these can lose coherence, but Violetta Bielecka has the measure of these difficult passages. The two principal soloists can be recommended without reserve, and for once the bass, responsible for two brief interventions as the celebrant, is quite rightly named in the booklet.
The performance has been excellently recorded, with plenty of space around the voices but without too much intrusive reverberation. An interesting booklet note by Magdalena Gajl is supplemented by excellent descriptions of each movement that contain, let it be said, a few observations that might not fit in with everybody’s view. The translation into English has been achieved with far greater success than is often the case by Tomasz Zymer. The sung texts are provided – on successive pages, not side by side – in Polish, English and Russian (Cyrillic characters).
I plead guilty to the widely observed fault of adhering, sometimes unreasonably, to old favourites among recordings of favourite works. In this case I find it difficult to imagine a performance that could surpass Chernushenko’s in terms of its dedication, vocal confidence and power, and sheer Russian atmosphere and fervour. The Latvian Radio Choir provides a different and, in its own way, an equally satisfying experience. I expect to appreciate more and more, with each hearing, this performance from Podlasie, and strongly recommend it to listeners as a safe and inspiring introduction to this wonderful work.