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Einojuhani RAUTAVAARA (1928-2016)
Vigilia. All-Night Vigil in Memory of St. John the Baptist for mixed choir and soloists (1971/72)
Niall Chorell (tenor)
Tuukka Haapaniemi (bass)
Helsinki Chamber Choir/Nils Schweckendiek
rec. 2018, Järvenpää Church, Finland. DSD
Finnish text & English translation included
BIS BIS-2422 SACD [70:34]

I first encountered Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Vigilia in an Ondine box of his choral music (review). That recording, which I believe is also available separately, is by the Finnish Radio Chamber Choir. It turns out that the FRCC is the predecessor of the Helsinki Chamber Choir; the ensemble changed its name in 2005.

Vigilia is a setting of the Orthodox All-Night Vigil, comprising Vespers (1971) and Matins (1972). In fact, what is recorded here is a shortened concert version of the score, made by the composer in 1986. In a short booklet note conductor Nils Schweckendiek says that a few years ago he asked the composer whether the original liturgical version of the score could be revived but Rautavaara “stated unequivocally” that only the 1986 concert version should now be used. The work has 34 movements: fourteen comprise Vespers and the remaining twenty constitute Matins. Each of these two sections plays without a break. Most of the movements are short, lasting for two or three minutes: in the present performance only three movements play for more than four minutes.

Vigilia was co-commissioned by the Helsinki Festival and the Orthodox Church of Finland. The Festival stipulated that the premiere should be given on the Feast of the beheading of St. John the Baptist so the texts set by Rautavaara include a good number of references to the Baptist.

The score is laid out for two soloists, tenor and bass, and a cappella choir. The two principal soloists take the roles of the Deacon and Priest. In addition, there are smaller but still significant solo roles which here are sung by members of the choir. In this performance no less than nine chorus members take solo roles

Rautavaara’s music is very different in style to, say, Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil. Partly, that’s due to the relative modernity of the Finnish composer’s writing, of which more in a moment. However, in addition Rautavaara approaches these liturgical texts in a different way. Firstly, as Varvara Merras-Häyrynen observes in the booklet essay, Rautavaara “has approached his Vigilia perhaps more in the tradition of Byzantine music than in that handed down through the Slavic church of the 19th century”. Furthermore, it does not seem that Rautavaara has based his settings on traditional chant melodies to any great degree, though the notes tell us that “at least one genuine Byzantine melody” has been used. That appears in the Antiphon for Matins (track 20) but the way the comment is phrased by Varvara Merras-Häyrynen implies that it’s an isolated instance.

I referred to the “relative modernity” of Rautavaara’s writing. As you listen, you will hear many instances of modern techniques of vocal writing, such as glissandi, microtones and cluster chords. However, though some contemporary composers use such devices in ways that draw attention to themselves or, frankly, sound outlandish, that is emphatically not the case here. On the contrary, you really have to listen carefully to find evidence of such techniques, so skilfully and naturally does Rautavaara deploy them. Furthermore, the musical vocabulary always fits the words very well. One example will suffice. In the ‘Sticheron’ movement of Vespers (track 11) the text reads ‘After thou ascended the cross…….and after descending down to hell..’ At these points, the use of glissandi, first upwards and then downwards, is entirely natural. Despite the modernity of the music it is firmly founded in tradition and often has a timeless feel to it. It must be enormously challenging to sing but the music is at all times completely accessible to the listener.

Rautavaara’s music is consistently rich and varied. At times, the text is delivered, chant-like, in one-part or two-part vocal writing before blossoming out into rich, complex chords. Elsewhere, the harmonic writing for the choir is inventive and warmly coloured – try the ‘Ekteniya of the Litany’ in the Vespers (track 10) or the rich textures of the ‘Hymn of the Resurrection’ at Matins from which a soprano solo eventually rises ecstatically (track 22). I found listening to the whole work a compelling experience; the music is kaleidoscopic in its variety and always resourceful.

The performance is absolutely superb. The choir is not large (6/5/5/5) but when the music demands it, these singers make a big sound that gives the impression of a larger group at work. However, the 21 professional voices sing with tremendous flexibility and clarity, meaning that however full and generous the choral textures may be, clarity is always achieved. It helps that BIS have recorded the performance magnificently. Engineer Nora Brandenburg has so positioned her microphones that there is warmth and clarity to the sound with a pleasing and natural acoustic glow. For this type of music and this size of ensemble I’d say the engineering is well-nigh ideal. I listened to this SACD using the 2.0 stereo option. There is a 5.0 Surround layer too and if you have surround facilities then I should imagine that the results will be even more satisfying. Reverting to the quality of the singing, the two principal soloists, Niall Chorell and Tuukka Haapaniemi, are commanding while the soloists drawn from the ranks of the choir all acquit themselves with distinction. The performance and recording on the Ondine version are also mightily impressive and it’s almost unfair to express a preference but I think that the BIS sound has the edge and so I’d now regard this version as my primary recommendation.

I see that when I reviewed the Ondine performance, which is when I heard Vigilia for the first time, I concluded that the work is “deeply impressive..[and].. a composition of great sincerity and eloquence”. This wonderful new recording from the Helsinki Chamber Choir confirms that judgement.

John Quinn

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