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Rachmaninov liturgy BIS2571
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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, Op.31 (1910)
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir/Kaspars Putniņš
rec. 11-15 January 2021, Niguliste Church, Tallinn, Estonia
BIS BIS-2571 SACD [58:53]

While Vladimir Putin’s army seems hell bent on destroying the Ukraine and its people, anti-Russian sentiment in the West is running high. Musical competition organisers and concert promoters have themselves joined in with some often ridiculous and ill-conceived gestures, such as banning Russian musicians from the schedules and taking Russian music off programmes. Doubtless there will be those who question the choice not only to review an archetypically Russian work by a great Russian composer, but to award it an “Recommended” tag, but those who do that are ignorant of the fact that Sergei Rachmaninov fled Russia in 1917 and never returned, and that he died almost a decade before Putin was even born. On top of that, while I know no more about the current Russian president than what I read in various media outlets, I do not imagine he is the sort of man who would readily respond to the emotional depths of Rachmaninov’s music, or be inclined to sympathise with almost an hour of profoundly sacred unaccompanied choral singing. So I make no excuse for praising this recording of a fabulous piece of music to the extreme; if your soul is unaffected by such universal beauty and your mind obsessed with the hatred of an entire people and its cultural legacy, you had best stop reading now.

St John Chrysostom seems to have been the very antithesis of Vladimir Putin. Described as being famous for his philanthropy, his denunciation of abuse of authority in the Church and in the Roman Empire, and for being named Chrysostom (golden-mouthed) for his eloquence. The Orthodox Church reveres him as a saint and counts him among the Three Holy Hierarchs. When Christianity reached Russia in the 10th century, he was regarded as the Father of the Orthodox church and his liturgy has long been regarded as one of the most important. Rachmaninov set the entire text to music in 1910, and although he clearly intended it for liturgical use, its first performance was in a concert setting and it is today most often heard either in concert or on recordings. The consequence of this is that it is often assessed for its musical language rather than the more elusive sense of spirituality. The booklet notes with this new recording quote Rachmaninov as saying “I started work on it somehow by chance, and then suddenly became fascinated with it. Not for a long time have I written anything with such pleasure”.

Pleasure is at the heart of this new recording from the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, but it goes in head-to-head with numerous other outstanding recordings, notably from the Flemish Radio Choir under Kaspars Putninsh (on Glossa), the USSR Chamber Choir under Valeri Polyansky (on Alto), and King's College Cambridge Choir under Stephen Cleobury (on Warner Classics). You will notice that only one of those is a genuinely Russian choir; but let’s put the nonsense to bed straight away that this is a work which can only be sung properly by Russians. True, the famous basso profundo (oktavist) voice, which is so essential to this music, tends to be the preserve of Russian voices, but, as all these choirs show, it is a technique which can very effectively be mastered by non-Russians, and Rachmaninov’s writing is so rich and eloquent any sensitive choral director commanding a body of equally sympathetic singers can easily out-Russian the Russians in this repertory.

The BIS recording is ideal, achieving the perfect choral balance (including those oktavists) with enough acoustic depth to give it that halo of sanctity but not too much to muddy the waters of Rachmaninov’s harmonic texture. Kaspars Putniņš lets the music evolve fluidly, never dwelling overlong on Rachmaninov’s luxuriant harmonies (but who could blame him if he did?) and keeping the intensity at bay. It oozes that sense of timelessness which characterises music of the most profound spiritual experience. This is very much a liturgical event rather than a performance one, and one of the things which does make this such an admirable recording is the fact that it sounds as much like a religious devotion as a performance of lovely music.
Marc Rochester

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