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Rachmaninov's Vespers -
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'... marvellous tonal exactitude, pellucid control, superb diction ...'

Rachmaninov Vespers and Complete All-Night Vigil. Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir / Paul Hillier. © 2008 harmonia mundi

From the opening of Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir's performance the authenticity of a Slavic sound is manifestly evident. There's a frisson of spirituality as the deacon (resonant basso profundo Vladimir Miller) exhorts worshippers 'Arise! Bless us, O Lord', while hard on his heels the priest (tenor Tiit Kogerman) evokes the wonder of an enduring Trinity.

Listen -- Arise! Bless us, O Lord
(track 1, 0:03-0:56) © 2008 harmonia mundi

Thereafter the All-Night Vigil commences with an unforgettable choral consensus: 'Come let us worship'.

This lynchpin of Russian Orthodox musical expression is undeniably a pivotal work in the Rachmaninov oeuvre.

Deeply moving, outwardly beautiful music, it draws on Russian melodies dating to Byzantine times. In the Eastern Church, the All-Night Vigil is observed before religious feasts. For Western choirs it poses a challenge as concert performance preparations call for skilled language coaches.

In its entirety the work incorporates texts from two of the Office's Canonical Hours; the evening's Vespers (tracks 1-6) and the following morning's Matins (tracks 7-15). Rachmaninov patterned ten of the liturgical segments on chant, while numbers 1, 3, 6, 10 and 11 are free likenesses of the same.

The period from 1880 to 1917 marked a renaissance in Russian choral music. Previously, it was dominated by German and Italian influences. Composers returned to old Russian chants as the source of their works, thus creating a thoroughly Russian choral style.

Still earlier, after 1666-1676, Old Believers broke with the Russian Orthodox Church hierarchy in protest against reforms (1652) introduced by seventh Patriarch Nikon (born Nikita Minin; incumbent, 1652-1658).

Nikon introduced ritual and textual innovations to restore uniformity between Russian and Greek Orthodox practices. He ordered an adjustment of the Russian rites to align with the Greek ones of his time.

Prior to these far reaching patriarchal changes and Nikon's overriding influence in the 17th century, all music of the Muscovite Russian Orthodox Church was notated with Neumes, or 'Signs', and known as 'Znamenny Chant' (ie 'Sign Singing'). It was sung with unison melodies (or in octaves by the men and women), though never with harmony. To this day Old Believers have faithfully retained their unbroken tradition of singing liturgical chants according to the 'neumatic notation.'

Shortly after Patriarch Nikon's reforms, the dominant 'State Church' introduced harmonized 'part signing' and following the annexation of Kiev and part of the Ukraine (1654), Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich and Patriarch Nikon invited singers from Kiev to come to Moscow and lead music in the patriarchal church.

They brought chant books with the staff 'hooks and banners' known as Kievan Notation and introduced harmonized singing.

Though Rachmaninov wrote few choral works, they are among the finest extant Russian liturgical music and the All-Night Vigil (more frequently called the Vespers) stands unchallenged at the summit of the Orthodox church music.

Composed in 1915, it requires singers to make use of a wide range of complex vocal techniques. Yet despite its inherent innovation and technical prowess the work's intense emotion and deep spirituality affect the listener most profoundly.

Its broad, wrenching, musical impact and spiritual power arise from Rachmaninov's inspired incorporation of varied Russian chant forms and traditional folk elements. These create the overriding melodic splendor enriched with a striking panoply of vocal colors and textures.

As for the rhythm and drama, harmonia mundi's detailed note writer George Gelles has this to say -- Rhythm: 'The Vigil reflects the prosody of its texts. The words' flow and accentuations are mirrored in the music creating a wonderful plasticity'. And the Drama: 'The fifteen movements span the gamut from contemplative to theatrical.'

Gelles singles out examples of both; the meditative Six Psalms (No 7) contrasted with (No 9) an active Gospel episode in which the Angel consoles women bringing myrrh to Jesus' empty tomb, urging them take news of the Resurrection to the disciples.

Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, under former chief conductor Paul Hillier (from 2001 until 2007) illuminate Rachmaninov's opulent score with striking beauty, noteworthy fidelity, and Slavic surety.

Listen -- Blessed is the man
(track 3, 0:00-1:04) © 2008 harmonia mundi

Its nine sopranos, six altos, seven tenors and eight basses (thirty voices) display a textural clarity sometimes less evident in larger choirs. That's not to gainsay appropriate expressive breadth, plus the rhythmic impetus and contemplative inwardness so evident under Hillier's inspirational direction.

The Vespers-All Night Vigil has fared extraordinarily well on disc and several of the twenty seven extant recordings are quite outstanding; moreover, contrary to some critical opinion, the best of a healthy bunch are by no means all the work of Russian choristers.

Though some tempos are on the brisk side few have captured the essence of this music with the breathtaking and in some respects the unassailable beauty of King's College Choir (Cambridge); men and boys under Stephen Cleobury (EMI, 1999).

Another compelling alternative also qualifying as 'the best of British' is Hyperion's (1994) version with the Corydon Singers and founder (1973) / choirmaster, Matthew Best.

Front runners among the Slavs, preferred by many, are St Petersburg Academic Cappella (also known as Glinka State Choir) with Vladislav Chernushenko on Saison Russe (harmonia mundi) -- 1992 recording, also released 1997.

Similarly a top recommendation; the USSR Ministry of Culture Chamber Choir featuring soloists Irina Arkhipova and Victor Rumantsev with conductor Valery Polyansky for Moscow Studio (2004).

The first recording (Soviet-Melodiya, 1965), widely regarded as irreplaceable, was by Alexander Sveshnikov with the State Russian Choir (then known as the USSR Academic Russian Choir). Owing to Soviet anti-religious policies, it was never sold within the USSR, but was available for the export market and private study. The recording achieved legendary status, in part for extremely strong low basses and superb solos by Klara Korkan and Konstantin Ognevoi.

And finally, not forgetting choirs west of the Atlantic; Atlanta-based Robert Shaw Festival Chorus is captured in an eloquent and dramatic performance from a spacious acoustic at the Church of St Pierre, Gramat, France. This Telarc recording won a Grammy award in 1990.

Especially treasurable moments from the Estonian choristers are too numerous to single out in full here ... the fathoms-deep opening (above) points the way via a full chorus to Psalm 103, Praise the Lord, O my Soul; a surpassing paean of adoration with the restrained, unmistakably Eastern alto of Iris Oja. The bass undercurrent is heard again prior to Mati Turi's beacon-steady tenor solos in the Kiev-influenced O gentle light and Lord, now lettest Thou. Note the ensemble's purity and control at O gentle light's final phrase.

Listen -- O gentle light
(track 4, 2:36-3:14) © 2008 harmonia mundi

The first Znamenny Chant; 'Praise the name of the Lord', the following 'Blessed art Thou, O Lord' and 'The Great Doxology' bring clear folk echoes and brisker tempos than those found in the Vespers. Listen also for the more declamatory voices in 'Having beheld the Ressurection'.

Listen -- Having beheld the Resurrection
(track 10, 2:36-2:31) © 2008 harmonia mundi

Other choirs bring more weight and dramatic range to the Vigil. Here, however the recording is near perfect while Hillier and his felicitous Estonians display marvellous tonal exactitude, pellucid control, superb diction and restorative calm.

Kievan Rus' arose in the 9th century and adopted Christianity from the Byzantine Empire in 988, beginning the synthesis of Byzantine and Slavic cultures that defined Russian culture for the next millennium. During those years forests, mountains, steppes and plains were visited with hunger, disease, battles, bloodshed, oppression and genocide.

Against that backdrop Russian sacred choral music conjures an image of people gathering to ('seek') comfort and hope in their Orthodox houses of worship, says David Cherwien, scholar, music director and conductor of the Minneapolis-based National Lutheran Choir. Rachmaninov says it far better.

Listen -- Rejoice, O Virgin
(track 6, 1:22-2:09) © 2008 harmonia mundi

Copyright © 7 September 2008 Howard Smith, Masterton, New Zealand


Rachmaninov: Vespers and Complete All-Night Vigil

HMU 807504 DSD Multichannel/Stereo NEW RELEASE 53'56" 2008 harmonia mundi usa

Vladimir Miller, basso profundo (intonations); Tiit Kogerman, tenor (intonation); Iris Oja, alto; Mati Turi, tenor; Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir; Paul Hillier, conductor

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943): All-Night Vigil Op 37 (Vespers: Come, let us worship; Praise the Lord, O my soul (with Iris Oja, alto); Blessed is the man; O gentle light (with Mati Turi, tenor); Lord, now lettest Thou (with Mati Turi, tenor); Rejoice, O Virgin; Matins: The Six Psalms; Praise the name of the Lord; Blessed art Thou, O Lord (with Mati Turi, tenor); Having beheld the Resurrection; My soul magnifies the Lord; The Great Doxology; Troparion: Today salvation is come; Troparion: Thou didst rise from the tomb; O queen victorious)


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