VESPERS (ALL-NIGHT VIGIL)
Kogerman, Turi, Miller; Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Hillier.
and translations. Harmonia Mundi Hybrid SACD 807504
of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s insufficiently appreciated masterworks, 1915’s soulful
Vsenochnoe Bdenie (Opus 37) may be the least “operatic” music I’ve
ever reviewed for this magazine. It certainly surpasses his operas in quality
and will astonish those who consider the composer only a master of virtuosic
piano writing or flashy orchestral coloration. Here, drawing from liturgical as
well as folk traditions, he lavished great lyric inspiration and polyphonic
skill on a cycle of fifteen movements — six Vesper settings and nine Vigils.
Rachmaninoff (a nonbeliever) was forty-two when this gorgeous piece had its
premiere; though 1910’s lovely Liturgy of St. John Chrysosthom presaged it in
some respects, some musicologists have seen its interiority and focus on
looking back into several Russian Orthodox choral traditions as a response to
the encroaching horrors of World War I.
the evidence of the last names, none of the thirty singers in the Estonian
Philharmonic Chamber Choir are ethnic Russians, but the older among them would
have been schooled in the language, and they clearly know their way around this
repertory very well indeed. The choir’s beautifully blended sound and ability
to achieve finely-honed dynamic and harmonic effects prove major assets.
Hillier directed the Choir from 2001 through 2007: those years included
collaborations with contemporary Estonian composers such as Arvo Pärt. This
recording was made in May 2004 and originally released in 2005; this rerelease
in wonderfully balanced sound in the SACD format can also be played on any CD
player. It can honorably be set beside Valery Polyansky’s great 1986
performance (Melodiya 10-00105) with slightly larger forces and a less
crystalline but aptly cathedral-based acoustic. Every serious lover of Russian
choral music will want to acquire one of them — or both.
first voice the listener encounters belongs to Vladimir Miller, one of those
unearthly extreme-low basses absolutely needed in Russian church music. The
briefly heard choral solo tenors — Tiit Kogerman and Mati Turi — are properly
musical and inconspicuous. One may have heard more imposing voices — the
unforgettable Irina Arkhipova’s contribution under Polyansky, for one — than
Iris Oja’s alto in “Praise the Lord, O my soul,” but Oja’s dignified
tone is handsomely and movingly projected. Harmonia Mundi has thoughtfully
provided Cyrillic tests alongside the English, French and German translations,
but there are no transliterations.