Review: Cappella Romana: Rakhmaninov Vigil

Review: Cappella Romana: Rachmaninov All Night Vigil. 

Of the times I have heard Cappella Romana do the Vigil, this was clearly the best balanced. The extra bass personnel made for a very enjoyable concert experience. Benedict Sheehan did a masterful job of piloting the choir through not just the Rachmaninov, but also several other pieces that provided a  context that gave the audience a taste of what was covered in a typical vigil. The intonation was wonderful. On Nynye Otpushchayesi the tenor solo was good if a bit nervous. The descending bass line at the end was helped by the services of Glenn Miller, the basso profundo who has become well associated with this work throughout the USA through his participation with many choirs. There was even a nice F1 at the end of Bogoroditse Dyevo. 

There was a tendency to not accent the strong syllable through much of the concert. This became most problematic with the singing of the small glorification (6 Psalms). If the choir accented SLA of “Slava” as much as Rachmaninov wrote for them to, it was lost in the acoustics of St. James Cathedral. The Bell effect that Rachmaninov composed was mostly limited to the sound of the various voices together creating the proper tones and overtones. 

On the Velichaniye (Magnificat) the sound of the men was very satisfyingly solid. The women had balance issues with the altos and 2nd sopranos overpowering the 1st sopranos. 

The Cappella Romana added many of the parts that would change from service to service to round out the concert and give a sense of context. They performed these hymns quite well.

It was overall a glorious concert with the voices accomplishing a feat of stamina and not sounding tired at the end. 

As an encore the Choir proformed Chesnokov’s Nye Otverzhi Menye with Glenn Miller singing the solo that he first premiered with the Illumni Men’s Chorale, singing the original ending the Chesnokov wrote.   Later, he won a Grammy with Conspirare with this piece. We were spoiled richly. 

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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.