This music is all about texture and tone and color, and your judgement regarding a performance will have as much to do with matters of ensemble technique as with your preference for true Slavic vocal quality or for a more Western sound. Many, many excellent choirs have performed and recorded this liturgical masterpiece, and overall the most impressive combination of emotional integrity, artful choral blend and balance, and sheer sumptuousness of tone belongs to the Robert Shaw Festival Singers (Telarc), whose sincerity of expression offsets the choir’s decidedly non-Slavic vocal timbre.


However, from the first notes of this performance by the superb Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir we appreciate the difference between Western and Slavic sound, as a super-deep and resonant bass voice intones the Deacon’s gathering words: “Arise! Bless us, O Lord.” This and the following short chanted lesson by the Priest (a tenor) are left out of many recordings, including Shaw’s, and it’s a treat to hear this bit of added authenticity, especially when sung with such conviction and power. Although the Estonian choir’s basses have nothing on the Festival Singers regarding range and fullness of sound, there’s slightly more weight and timbral “buzz” to the former’s quality, especially as the pitch moves lower.


Overall, these are exciting and often moving performances as the choir works the phrasing and dynamics into thoughtful, sincere expressions of the texts, never losing the effect and inherent Romanticism of Rachmaninov’s gorgeous lines and rich harmonies. O gentle light is stunning in its unadorned directness, its words expressed both in simple, gentle gestures and strong, forceful outbursts. Likewise the following Lord, now lettest Thou (known in Western churches as the Nunc dimittis), which is graced with beautiful tenor solo work by Mati Turi (his counterpart on the Telarc disc is equally impressive). The beloved and oft-performed Rejoice, O Virgin (Bogoroditsye Devo) receives an appropriately reverent and harmonically luscious rendition (the big crescendo is truly awesome), and the basses eschew the low-C that choirs often interpolate at the end of the piece (which Shaw’s basses deliver with relish!).


The Estonians do, however, show their low-end stuff everywhere else that’s required–the B-flat at the end of Lord, now lettest Thou is marvelous! Another highlight is The Six Psalms, with its truly ethereal textural and tonal effects. The sound is a bit on the bright side, with some significant resonance that creates some harshness and messes with the otherwise fine blend and balance in the loudest passages. Although I remain a Shaw fan for this work, I also cherish this version for its special Eastern-quality choral sound and for the inclusion of the various intonations. The packaging is excellent and George Gelles’ notes are thoughtful and informative. Strongly recommended.