The Clarion Choir has developed a nice tradition: they perform Rachmaninoff’s Vespers on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. I attended on New Year’s Eve, or New Year’s Late Afternoon, if you like: five o’clock. That is a very civilized hour. The performance took place in the Church of the Resurrection on East Seventy-fourth Street.
They don’t want you to call the Vespers the Vespers. By “they” I mean experts, and they are quite right. This work is properly called All-Night Vigil. But I grew up with the title Vespers and I have a hard time letting it go. Stubbornness? Laziness?
There are two things you often hear about this work, and I will relate them to you now: Rachmaninoff wrote it in under two weeks, in 1915. Also, he asked that its fifth section—“Lord, Let Now Thy Servant Depart in Peace,” with the tenor solo—be sung at his funeral.
How could Rachmaninoff write such a holy work, by the way? Isn’t he known for piano concertos of a splashy nature? He was a man of parts, Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff.
Conducting the Clarion Choir was its artistic director, Steven Fox. His bio includes this interesting line: “He founded Musica Antiqua St. Petersburg as Russia’s first period-instrument orchestra at the age of twenty-one.” Fox is a very musical fellow, conducting with a fluid technique.
Rather than go through this performance of the Vespers section by section, or movement by movement, I will speak in general terms. Tempos were on the brisk side—which I appreciated. There was never a feeling of rushing, but the piece was definitely moved along.
This is related, perhaps: there was a good deal of drama in this performance. You have heard cooler, more austere, more inward performances. This one was almost earthy, I’m tempted to say. The alleluias were often more robust than angelic. Some sections were downright operatic, classifiable with Boris Godunov or something.
And some sections—choruses—were loud, very loud (especially in a church of non-cathedral size). That was exciting.
Pitch was sometimes iffy—approximate, rather than precise. At the beginning of a few sections, I wasn’t sure what key we were in, and neither were the singers, I think. But this did no real harm. Sopranos were occasionally effortful, when they should have been free, easy, and light. But let me stress that this was a human performance, and no worse for that. The buzz in the basses—especially one of the basses—was enjoyable.
There are two main soloists in the Vespers: the aforementioned tenor and a mezzo-soprano. The mezzo on this evening was Mikki Sodergren, who sang beautifully and intelligently. She might have let herself go a bit more (in accord with the general humanness of the performance, come to think of it). She was a little polite. You don’t have to go the full Olga Borodina, but you can be more soulful in this music—think of American gospel, in its Russian equivalent. Still, Ms. Sodergren was lovely and admirable (letting the music do the work).
From the tenor, I want a melting trumpet—and that’s what you got from John Ramseyer. Also, despite his name, he sounded truly Russian.
Here is a question: How do you keep the Vespers from drowning in sameness? Steven Fox had the answer: He was ever alert. He never fell asleep. He never conducted on autopilot. He was attentive to the meaning and purpose of every section and phrase. This is no minor feat. It was the conductor, more than anything else, that made this Vespers satisfying.
There was an intermission, or “interval,” as our programs said, British-style. I believe this was an error. The Vespers is a short work anyway—an hour, if that—and I would have preferred to push on through. There are Bruckner and Mahler symphonies longer than the Vespers. And many, many acts of operas. Anyway, tastes will vary on this matter.
A final note, sartorial, which is unusual for me: the men were in white tie and the women in black dresses. I’m talking about the Clarion Choir, not the audience. This was pleasant to see, in this shabby age, especially on New Year’s Eve.