The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: A new recording of Rachmaninoff’s “All-Night Vigil” captures the Russian qualities the composer prized in this sacred music

April 12, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a record review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

For reasons, astronomical and cultural, the Western and Eastern Orthodox celebrations of Easter are frequently held at separate dates. But this year they coincide (on this coming Sunday, April 16). That gives good reason to direct attention beyond familiar Western Easter music and instead to that of Eastern Orthodoxy.

A new recording of one of the landmarks of Russian Orthodox music provides further stimulus to this.

Russian Orthodox practice did not encourage extensive new compositions, but stressed elaborate liturgical rituals built around the heritage of medieval monophonic chant, while benefiting from the fabulous style of Russian choral singing—those low basses (“octavists”) in particular.

Most composers who worked to enrich the liturgical literature were professional church musicians, but a number of “secular” Russian composers also made contributions. Notable among them were Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Peter Tchaikovsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff (below).

It is the last of those three who has given us the music at hand, a truly memorable sacred creation. The work is his Op. 37, entitled “The Most Important Hymns of the ‘All-Night Vigil,” and commonly called “The All-Night Vigil” (Vsenoshchnogo Bdeniya) or else, more simplistically the “Vespers.”

It was composed during the early years of World War I, which was to bring about the collapse of the Russia that Rachmaninoff knew. It was performed in 1915, and two years later, amid the upheavals of the two Revolutions, the composer left his native land for good.

Rachmaninoff prized his Op. 37 above his other works; it was his proclamation of Russian identity, and after it he wrote no more sacred music. He even hoped that one section of it could be sung at his funeral. (A moving sample can be heard in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The Orthodox Christian celebration of the Resurrection places emphasis on the Saturday night offices of Vespers and Matins, in a prolonged and elaborate ritual. (This Vigil array can also be used for other significant feasts beyond Easter.)

Given the lengths, Rachmaninoff chose to set his selection of “the most important hymns” for his Op. 37, for a total of 15 sections. He did follow working practice by building his settings on or around traditional chant melodies. He expected that individual sections might have liturgical usage; but he understood that the totality was a grand concert work.

The Rachmaninoff All-Night Vigil, or “Vespers,” has been recorded many times, often by Russian choirs, which have the musical and liturgical style in their blood. But non-Russian groups and directors have also come to recognize the transcendent beauty of this masterwork.

Noteworthy among those was Robert Shaw, the great American choral master whose recording (on the Telarc label) has been acclaimed by his admirers for its predictably superb choral sound. But Shaw and his singers lack Russian sound or spiritual sensitivity.

Other American performers have joined in: the broadly paced recording with Charles Bruffy and his Phoenix and Kansas City choirs (for Chandos) is notable. Paul Hillier’s recording (for Harmonia Mundi) with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir has earned great respect.

I have just been taken by the brand new release (below) from Paraclete Recordings of Massachusetts, with the Gloria Dei Cantores and members of three other choirs under the direction of Peter Jermihov.

They number 77 singers in all and, as recorded in a church setting, they make a sumptuous sound. Their emphasis is less on clarifying individual voice parts and more on relishing the rich blends that make up the total texture.

While treating the work as a grand concert piece, this performance goes beyond most others by including intonations by clerical celebrants, recalling the liturgical context that was always in the composer’s mind.

One of the striking features of this release is its thick album booklet. This is not only richly illustrated but contains an unusually penetrating background essay. Further, in presenting the Russian texts (in Cyrillic and transliteration) with English translations, it also gives useful comments section by section, for the fullest understanding of the liturgical contexts.

This is a noteworthy addition to the crowded recording picture for this sumptuous and deeply moving sacred music.


Classical music Q&A: Co-conductors Beverly Taylor and Adam Kluck explain the appeal of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Vespers” and why they are hard to perform and exotic to hear for Western ears. Hear them for yourself when the University of Wisconsin-Madison Choral Union performs this a cappella masterpiece on this Saturday night, April 26.

April 21, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Choral Union will perform Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Vespers” or “All-Night Vigil.” (Below is St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow.)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There is only one performance of this rarely heard work. One short and beautiful audio clip is at the bottom in a YouTube video, and will give you a sample of the gorgeous a cappella, or unaccompanied, sound.

Admission is $10 for adults and the general public. Senior citizens and students get in for free. Tickets may be purchased for concerts up to one month in advance. 
Remaining tickets will be sold at the door. 
You can call (608) 265-ARTS (2787) for ticket information and reservations.

The Ear asked co-conductors Beverly Taylor (below top) and Adam Kluck (below bottom) to answer a Q&A by email. Below are the answers provided by Beverly Taylor (BT) and Adam Kluck (AK).

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE

Adam Kluck conducting

Sergei Rachmaninoff is known primarily as a virtuosic piano and orchestral composer. How do his vocal compositions, in particular the “Vespers,” stand up in quality and characteristics of the melodies and harmonies, the rhythm and Russian feel, to his more popular works?

BT: I actually know little of his vocal output beyond the vespers, although I know there are some lovely works for women’s voices. Most of the Vespers are based on existing chant, and although the melodies are not always as expansive as Rachmaninoff’s symphonies, the flow and grace are part of his output, and his use of extreme dynamics from very soft ppp to very loud ff are those of a Romanticist.

AK: It is interesting to note that Rachmaninoff, lauded for his prowess as a “melodist” in his instrumental works, would choose to set the All-Night Vigil service of the Orthodox church (thus limiting himself to a composition that had to be completely a cappella or without accompaniment).

We know that Rachmaninoff grew up near the church in Novgorod (further down is an icon from a Russian Orthodox church in that city) and, although he was not a practicing Orthodox Christian, he certainly was familiar with the practices and — most importantly — the musical and liturgical aspects of the church. Interestingly, Rachmaninoff set another large-scale a cappella work based on another Orthodox church service, “The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.” Tchaikovsky and several other well-known Russian composers set this as well. Rachmaninoff did not like what he ended up with, and so he decided to set the All-Night Vigil.

Most movements are harmonizations and re-workings of chant melodies dating back to the Byzantines, although Rachmaninoff (below)  does create a few movements based on his own melodic content; and these latter movements are just as effective, if not more so.

The long melodic lines throughout much of the work are characteristic of Rachmaninoff, but even harmonically the compositional language is relatively conservative.

Rachmaninoff

How do the Vespers compare or rank when placed against some of the other great choral music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms and other works and composers that the UW Choral Union performs?

BT: They’re simply–different! Most of what we sing in the UW Choral Union (seen below, with the UW Symphony Orchestra) is accompanied by orchestra, and most of the Classical and early Romantic works have more periodic phrasing, so that an overall form emerges. That is much less the case with these beautiful pieces; a few of them have verses and recognizable refrains.  Others are through-composed. They are more meditative, and show off particularly the low and mellow sounds.  The basses (and we have them!) are asked to sing low D’s, C’s and even a low B in the work.

AK: The pacing of the All-Night Vigil is atypical of those other composers. There are often several movements strung together with very similar tempi, and some of the movements are much longer than others.

The absence of any instrumentalists also means no break for the choir and a magnification of any intonation and tuning issues. Additionally, the first soprano and tenor parts sit quite high in the voice for sustained periods of time, compounding the difficulty.

It is certainly one of the most challenging pieces of any size and scope for these reasons, and for the audience it does require a somewhat different mindset as well. There won’t be the rollicking fugues we’ve come to love and expect from a Haydn or Mozart mass, or a Bach cantata. This piece is something else entirely.

UW Choral Union and UW Symphony 11-2013

Why do you think the Vespers aren’t better known or performed more frequently?

BT: They call for a fair amount of “divisi” — divided parts in all the ranges, but mostly it’s the lack of good low basses, which I think explains why they’re not done more often.

AK: Apart from the unique challenges it presents, I think that in the United States, Russian choral music is still intimidating to us. The language is still the primary barrier, but the choral sound in Eastern Europe and Russia is different to us as well. Rather than attempting to replicate these sonorities as accurately as possible, some directors often choose to program something that is more familiar to audiences and choristers alike. (Below is the interior of a Russian Orthodox Church.)

Russian Orthodox church interior

What specific things would you like to point out for the public to know about the Vespers and your performance of them?

BT: My assistant Adam Kluck loves this work, and so we’re splitting the conducting duties. We’re also doing some minor things involving projections and icons to convey somewhat the world of the senses in which these works would be performed — candles, beautiful art. (Below is an icon from a Russian Orthodox church in the city of Novgorod, where Rachmaninoff grew up.)

AK: In the Russian church tradition, there are many prescriptions for singing as part of a service. We will have one of our choir members, Father Michael, an Orthodox priest, sing the chant before the piece, so that it is permissible to sing the “amen” at the beginning of each of the first two movements.

Rachmaninoff’s setting of each movement illustrates the text very well, and so especially if you are able to follow along with the translations, the piece will really come alive.

Russian icon from Novgorod

Is there something else you would like to say or add?

BT: The concert will be lovely, but more meditative than some concerts.  It won’t always hit you in the face, but it will certainly be well worth listening deeply to.

AK: If your readers enjoy this piece of music, I would encourage them to seek out other choral music by Sergei Rachmaninoff, Peter Tchaikovsky, Alexander Gretchaninoff, and any other Russian composers. The sacred and secular music of the Russian-Baltic region just after the turn of the century is wonderfully expressive and unique.

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