On a 1965 recording of Rachmaninoff’s All Night Vigil and a recent performance by the Clarion Choir.
In my family record collection there is an old LP box set of Rachmaninoff’s All Night Vigil by Alexander Sveshnikov and the State Academic Russian Choir from 1965. It clearly had pride of place in its previous owner’s library: almost thirty years of newspaper clippings and programs relating to the Vigil have been stuffed inside, starting with a lavishly printed purple brochure from a 1976 performance at the Washington National Cathedral by the Cathedral Choral Society.
The brochure mentions that icons donated to the cathedral by FDR’s ambassador to the Soviet Union Joseph E. Davies and by Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia were brought out in lieu of a clergy procession, and the audience was asked to refrain from any applause. The concert, we read, was recorded and broadcast (illicitly) to the Soviet Union, where the performance and recording of this jewel of Orthodox church music was banned under anti-religious law.
How, then, had Sveshnikov’s recording been made? Only for use in private academic study, it turns out. One can imagine shuffling up to some Kafkaesque library window to present the requisite papers, earning a few precious minutes in a headphone booth. Eventually, like a dissident artist granted an exit visa, the recording was allowed to be exported to the foreign market, where the demand for its spacious acoustics and authentic Russian bass voices was great.
At a time when hearing a real Russian choir has become, once more, an impossibility for most Americans, we are eminently well served by the Clarion Choir, one of the leading Western practitioners of Rachmaninoff’s choral works, who performed the Vigil at Carnegie Hall on May 5.
No, Rachmaninoff’s Russian Orthodox vigil does not actually last all night, but over the course of about an hour’s performance time, its fifteen movements take us through the canonical hours of Vespers, Matins, and the First Hour. Reading along with the translated brochure text, many churchgoers surely recognized similarities to their own liturgies: for example, a Hail Mary (movement 6, Bogoroditse Devo), which is often extracted as a choral showpiece, and a sublime setting of the Nunc dimittis (movement 5, Nïne otpushchayeshi), which Rachmaninoff requested to be sung at his funeral.
While the harmonic structure has its roots in the Orthodox tradition, the Vigil’s emotive qualities and many of its melodic lines are distinctly Romantic and Rachmaninoffian. These melodic peaks and valleys, which track the movement of night to day and fervent supplication to exclamatory praise, bear the unmistakable stamp of the man who composed the Second Piano Concerto and the Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini.
The Vigil’s words are not Russian—rather, Old Church Slavonic, which in linguistic terms is to Russian (and Ukrainian and Belorussian) roughly what Middle English is to our language. For a non-native Russian speaker such as myself, the basic meanings come across, and for Russians, it carries a deep, poetic richness that calls to mind and heart the primordial cultural and religious experiences that Slavic people share.
Can an American choir like Clarion handle this very Slavic music? It is hard to recapture the strengths and ineffable subtleties of a Russian choir such as Sveshnikov’s, from the athleticism of the bass section to the tender, world-weary coloring in the alto solo by Klara Korkan in the second movement, a setting of Psalm 104 (“Bless the Lord, O My Soul”).
It would be a safe guess that most of Clarion’s singers learned the words phonetically. Yet their pronunciation was crisp, clear, and carefully studied, particularly on the tricky “sh” and “r” consonants and swallowed, watery vowel sounds.
An even greater hurdle for a Western choir to surpass is the sheer power and range required of the bass section. This even startled the Russians at the time, who are no strangers to challenging bass parts. “Where on earth are we to find such basses?,” the conductor of the Vigil’s premiere complained to Rachmaninoff upon reading the score. “They are as rare as asparagus at Christmas!” Nevertheless, they did find them, and Clarion’s conductor, Steven Fox, thankfully has too.
At thirty-four members, this is a medium-sized ensemble for this piece, smaller than many Russian ones. A stalwart contingent of nine basses supplied the bottom end and navigated successfully downward to the low B flat at the end of the Nunc dimittis—one of the most famous low notes in Western music (hear Sveshnikov’s men tackle it here). It helps that Clarion has among its ranks the basso profundo Glenn Miller, who is something of a champion weightlifter among bass singers (he is even on record singing this B flat a major third lower, just for kicks). It was a pleasure to hear these well-trained singers at work Friday night.
The two major solo parts, for alto and tenor, were served well by Mikki Sodergren and John Ramseyer, respectively. My only quibbles would be in unfair comparison to Korkan and Konstantin Ognevoi’s gorgeously inflected singing in the Sveshnikov.
To make a fairer comparison between the two, contrast Sveshnikov’s recording of “Bless the Lord, O My Soul” to Clarion’s version on their recent recording of the Vigil, and take note of both choirs’ differing but valid approaches—where Sveshnikov is titanic and staggering (hear the basses join Korkan on the fourth syllable of “Ghospodi Bo-zhe moi”), Clarion takes a lighter, more dynamic tack and does not try to beat the Russians at their own game. This was in evidence at Carnegie Hall, particularly in the closing movement, representing the first canonical hour, which gives the higher registers a chance to shine. The tone was just right, and in all truth I preferred Clarion’s crystalline articulation of this joyful movement to Sveshnikov’s more robust approach.
This choir’s dedication to its material is obvious in every note—a performance of theirs is not to be missed, in Rachmaninoff and anyone else. I will be glad to add this program to the LP box.
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