Review of Seattle Choral Company singing Rachmaninov’s All-Night-Vigil

Review of the June 3rd 2011 performance of the All-Night-Vigil by the Seattle Choral Company

Before the Vigil, the SCC performed 4 pieces: Lumina Lina by Diaconescu, Eonia by Tavener, and two of the Drei Geistliche Gesänge (3 spiritual songs) by Schnittke. Starting with these was a brilliant programing move by the SCC Artistic Director in that it gave a lower intensity easing into the concert for both singers and audience. Of these pieces I must comment on the Lumina Lina. Mircea Diasconesu is a Romanian composer of Orthodox music. His setting of Lumina Lina, based both on the Romanian text and the Greek chant “Phos Hilaron” was one of the best settings of this ancient chant that I’ve heard. Thank you Freddie Coleman for bringing this to our attention. Something must also be said about the notes in the program which helped created a context of how the All-Night-Vigil is served as a worship service.

The All-Night-Vigil started with a wonderful and warm sound at mp. When the Choir got louder the treble voices tended to overpower the rest of the choir, there were some pitch problems in Psalm 103. These I attribute to “nerves”. Once the warmth of the Alto section singing the chant over the beautifully painted canvass of the men’s voices took over, the choir settled down for a good concert. It is obvious that the director worked a lot with balance, blend, and intonation in preparing the choir. In these aspects the choir excelled. What was missing in the Vespers section was the natural accents of the text. This is often a problem when a choir that is not used to Slavonic attempts the Vigil. I must give Kudos to the Octavists (the very low Basso Profundi) who performed well for most of the Vigil.

The tempo of the Nyne Otpushchayesi (Now dismiss Thy servant) was a bit on the fast side. St. Simeon is declaring that his life is fulfilled in meeting Christ in the Temple. Rakhmaninov uses choral effects that echo the slow ringing of bells in a funeral (This was his favourite composition; indeed he wanted this piece sung at his funeral; sadly that did not happen). At a faster tempo, the slow bell effect gets lost. Perhaps this was due to the late substitution of Tenor soloist Justin Ferris for the ailing Chris McCafferty. Justin’s voice is young and has a sweet quality to it. In a few years he will have the maturity to sing this stronger. Justin did an able job of filling in on the solo. The Octavists did a good job of delivering their first low Bb of the afternoon.

After intermission the Choir started the Matin’s section. Slava v’Vishn’ikh Bog (Glory to God in the Highest). Again the blend and balance were very good. Again the natural accents of the text are missing. In first piece of the Matins section, Rakhmaninov sets a section of text that is usually read by an ordained reader from the middle of the nave before he reads the 6 Psalms of Matins. Rakhmaninov deliberately uses Bell changes typical of the beginning of a service. Without the strong accent on the word “Sláva” the bell effect does not communicate.

Kvalitye Imya Gospodnye (Praise the Name of the Lord) has the same attention to balance and blend, but no accents on the stressed syllables.

However, this changed on Blagosloven yes Gospodi (Blessed art Thou, O Lord) the Evlogitarion Angelski Sobor. Here the choir combined the careful balance and blend they had polished with textual accents that made the piece come to life in a way that I have seldom heard from a non-Russian choir. This and the piece following, Voskreseniye Khristov (Having seen the Resurrection of Christ) were performed as well as any Russian choir I have heard. The SCC made me cry with the beauty of their execution of these two movements. Bravo and thank you SCC.

The Velichit dusha moya  (Magnificat) started off with this same level of quality. By this time, mental fatigue was beginning to take the edge off. A mistake in the soprano entrance took away the confidence they started the piece with. The Octavists continued to deliver and phrased the last line very well.

The Great Glorification is the most difficult of the Vigil. The vocal demands as well as the large amount of text that goes by rather quickly make this a challenge for a non-Russian Choir. The SCC started well. There is a very exposed soli section for the Baritones, who performed well up to this point (Sedyai odesnuyu). I heard individual voices at this point instead of a unified sound. Towards the end of this piece the soprano section was showing signs of vocal fatigue. The choir held the piece together and finished strongly. Kudos to the alto section who performed marvelously.

The next 2 pieces, Rakhmaninov gives the choir a break. It is a straight forward setting of the Znamenny Chant. On Dnes Spasniye (Today Salvation comes to the world) the choir took advantage of this and regrouped. On Voskres iz groba (Thou didst rise from the tomb) the fatigue started to set in on most of the sections except the altos.

Here I must criticize the Composer. The last piece Vzbannoy Voyevodye (Victorious Leader) is the least chant-like of all the works of the Vigil. It is more operatic; and, it is at the end. At this point, even the Sveshnikov choir sounds tired as they sing it. Only the alto section sounded like they had more to give at this point.

On the whole this was a marvelous performance. The two pieces I mentioned above (#9 and #10) were beyond marvelous. The SCC has every right to be proud of what they have accomplished.

Here is a Link to a Lecture on Rakhmaninov’s All-Night-Vigil given by Dr. Vladimir Morosan (who published the score that SCC used for this concert.

http://www.ancientfaith.com/specials/the_saint_katherine_college_forum/the_musical_sources_of_rachmaninoffs_all_night_vigil

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Review of Capella Romana’s Concert of Rachmaninov’s All-Night-Vigil

Capella Romana sings Rachmaninov All-Night-Vigil

Concert on January 7 2012

On olde calendar Christmas (Jan 7) Capella Romana performed the All-Night-Vigil at St. James Cathedral in Seattle. Capella Romana is a Chamber choir that beefed up its bass section for this concert. According to Chesnokov’s book on choral directing they should have had an additional bass and octavist to balance the sound (page 13). The octavist they did have did a magnificent job. When the choir went flat in the Velichit Dush (Magnificat) #11 the octavist were still able to sing a clear Low Bb (which by that time had become a Low A) and tune it immaculately. The choir gave a spirited performance which was augmented by including some of the other parts of the All-Night-Vigil that Rakhmaninov did not set. They included pieces by other Russian Masters that gave a sense of the context of the Vigil as a worship service. For this effort I must applaud the Capella Romana.

Review of Recordings of the Rachmaninov All-Night-Vigil

 

A Review of Recordings  of the Rakhmaninov All-Night-Vigil.

 

The oldest available recording of the All-Night-Vigil is by the State Russian Academic Choir conducted by Alexander Sveshnikov. It was first recorded in 1965 by Melodiya, but not widely available. In 1973 they re-recorded this for the centennial of Rakhmaniov’s birth. Because of anti-religious ideology, it was mainly exported outside the former Soviet Union. Recently the 1965 recording was remastered and has been re-released.

Sveshnikov was a student of Chesnokov who was last conductor of the Moscow Synod Choir that premiered the All Night Vigil. Both Rakhmaninov and Chesnokov were students of Stepen Smolensky (Rakhmaninov dedicated the All-Night Vigil to Stepan Smolensky).

This makes Sveshnikov the musical “grandson” of Nikolai Danilin, who premiered the work.

The Svesnikov recordings feature lush bass and octavist that make the recordings very satisfying. When they go flat, they go flat together. A valid criticism of the recordings is that when syllables have a strong accent due to the text that both soloists and choir will scoop the pitch. While some may think this to be idiomatic, there is no reason why such strong accents could not be accomplished without bending the pitch. Additionally the Choir sounds vocally fatigued for the last 3 pieces, and the octavist that goes down to a low G1 at the end #14 sounds creaky, crickety and fried.

The tempos in the 1965 reading are a bit quicker; the transparency of the vocal parts is clearer. The quality of the recording engineering and the subtleties of shaping and the blend are better in the 1973 recording.

The attention to detail, the attention to intonation and overtones to the point where, at points, it sounds as if instruments were accompanying them playing notes that no one is actually singing, and that it is produced by a musical grandson of the original make these must listen to.

 

In 1986 the USSR Minster of Culture Chamber Choir under the direction of Valeri Polyansky recorded the All-Night-Vigil in Dormition Cathedral (also a Melodiya recording). The recording is every bit as respectable as the Svesnikov recording. For the most part they avoid the scooping that afflicts the Sveshnikov recordings. The tempos are also a bit livelier. For a chamber choir it is a good rendering. The intonation is, on the whole, good. A notable exception is at the beginning of #9 Blagosloven yesi Gospodi (Blessed art Thou O Lord/ Evlogitarion/ Angelski Sobor) when the altos come in on the Bb, they take a good second to find the pitch. While the recording is good, one misses the sound of a full choir.

Mstislav Rostropovich recorded the All-Night-Vigil with the Choral Arts Society of Washington in 1987 on the Erato label. The tempi are bold and energetic, making for a spirited performance. The recording suffers a light bass section.

Robert Shaw recorded the Vigil with the Robert Shaw Festival Singers in 1989 for Telarc. The intonation is beyond immaculate, the blend is wonderful. The recording has a feeling of “something missing”. What is missing is that the normal accents that are part of the Slavonic Text, that would not need to be notated as accented, are entirely missing. It is as if a very good french choir were singing that did not understand where the strong accents were required.

Recently (2010) the combined Church Choirs of Saratov recorded the Vigil, conducted by Svetlana Khakhalina. The recording was produced by the Eparchy of Saratov. The recording was done at Intercession Church in Saratov in Russia. This is a good recording of the Vigil. The balance between parts is very good and it has a transparency that is missing in the Sveshnikov recordings. It does have one draw-back. There is one Bass II (not an octavist) who is frequently off pitch just enough to draw attention to his voice.