Sergei Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil (sometimes inaccurately called his Vespers) is the best known, and the pinnacle, of the Russian composer’s liturgical choral works. Steven Fox, leader of the Clarion Choir, has been living with this music for more than 20 years, and the choir’s exquisite performance on this new recording evidences artistic understanding and scholarship as much as it does musical feeling and skill.
The glowing acoustics of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity were an ideal bed for the Clarion’s live performance of Rachmaninoff’s Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom on New Year’s Eve (reviewed here). So naturally it was a perfect venue for this recording, made in 2020 and out now on Pentatone.
Supplementing Rachmaninoff’s 15 amazingly varied movements, the album includes the original monophonic chants on which the composer based some of the music. Other movements’ themes came from his tradition-inspired imagination. All are sung in the original Church Slavonic, the ancient language still used in much Eastern Orthodox worship.
Eastern Orthodox liturgical music, whether ancient or from the early 20th century like Rachmaninoff’s (or even the 21st), is sung a cappella. This makes all the more evident how the music is like flesh on the bones of the words, expressing and augmenting their meaning through melody, rhythm and dynamics. And one need not know a word of any Slavic language to sense this, and to bathe in the luxury of this profound music. (The album package includes the lyrics with English translations.)
In his liner notes Vladimir Morosan quotes the conductor Peter Jermihov, who said that the All-Night Vigil “can be appreciated for its sheer beauty and purely artistic merits…[and] can also be performed and experienced from the vantage point of devout Christian piety and faith.”
The many moods of Rachmaninoff
Not much in the Western vocal canon will prepare one for the extra-low C, courtesy of noted basso profundo Glenn Miller, in the call to prayer that begins the exposed “Opening Exclamation.” When the choir enters in full glory with its own “Come, let us worship” we are immediately plunged into Rachmaninoff’s rich harmonies. The final chord lasts just a bit longer than one might expect, something that happens frequently on this rendition. Solo voices meld with the choir in the serene and captivating “Bless the Lord, O My Soul” that follows. The call-and-response of the next movement makes use of a divided choir, interrupted by a burst of bright excitement in singing “Slava Ottsu, i Sïnu, i Sviatomu Duhu (Glory to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit)” before subsiding to an almost somber “Alliluiya.”
Women’s voices weren’t included in Orthodox liturgical music until the late 19th century — fortunately in time for Rachmaninoff. High voices intone the first of the foundational chants, the Kyiv chant “Svete tihiy (“O Gladsome Light”). Other chants are from the Russian Znamenny (or Znameny) chant tradition. Either way, in these pairings with Rachmaninoff’s creations based on the chants, we hear how he develops these melodies into multidimensional compositions.
The hypnotic “Nïne otpushchayeshï” (“Lord, now lettest Thou”) and the “Six Psalms” movement (graced with an exquisite diminuendo) reveal all the choir’s subtlety and finesse. In contrast, the singers effectively convey drama and excitement in the narrative ninth movement. And you can hear the desperation in the pleading for mercy at the end of “The Great Doxology.”
One of the great achievements (and pleasures) of the All-Night Vigil is the organization of the moving parts – voices stepping up or down against a bed of other voices holding steady, small glidings where you wouldn’t expect them, individual voices breaking against the flow, choir sections emerging in different colors as if through a prism. Under Fox’s leadership, and with the benefit of excellent acoustics and top-notch recording and production, the Clarion Choir makes a crowning statement with this release. A live performance is on the Carnegie Hall schedule for May 5, 2023.