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RACHMANINOV: All Night Vigil, op. 37
16 Sep 2005

RACHMANINOV: All Night Vigil, op. 37

Sergei Rachmaninov established his reputation early in his career as one of the twentieth- century’s foremost pianists and conductors. Critical assessment of his abilities as composer, however, was harsh. In the fifth edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Eric Blom wrote dismissively: “…as a composer [Rachmaninov] can hardly be said to have belonged to his time at all,…His music is well constructed and effective, but monotonous in texture, which consists in essence mainly of artificial and gushing tunes….[His] enormous popular success…is not likely to last,…” In general, critics dismissed his musical language as outmoded, as being far from the mainstream of twentieth-century musical styles--indeed, most considered his works as anachronisms, composed by a man whose style had not left the late nineteenth century. Even Rachmaninov acknowledged feeling lost amid the music of most other twentieth-century composers. In a 1939 interview he gave for the Musical Courier, Rachmaninov said, “I felt like a ghost wandering in a world grown alien. I cannot cast out the old way of writing and I cannot acquire the new.”

RACHMANINOV: All Night Vigil, op. 37

  • Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Paul Hillier, dir., Harmonia Mundi HMU907384 [CD]

  • Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Michael Gläser, dir., Oehms Classics OC 351 [CD]

  • SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart, Marcus Creed, dir., Hänssler 093112000 [CD]

  • St Petersburg Chamber Choir, Nikolai Korniev, cond., Pentatone PTC 5186 027 [CD]


When one places Rachmaninov’s All Night Vigil in the historical context of other compositions written at about the same time, one is amazed at the variety of musical languages spoken in the second decade of the twentieth century. In 1912, three years before the Vigil, audiences heard Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire for the first time; Stravinsky’s Le sacre du Printemps had caused an uproar in Paris the next year. In America, Charles Ives (whose music would not become known for some time to come) was close to “finishing” his revolutionary fourth symphony. It is little wonder that Rachmaninov felt lost.

As it often does, history began to repeat itself in the late years of the nineteenth century as composers began to find new ways to invest their music with a tonal center. Neo-Romantic music and the “spiritual” sounds of Gorecki and Pärt began to attract an audience the size of which competed with that which listened to the music of Schoenberg and his followers--music that was academically correct, but seemingly devoid of emotional bearings. In this rediscovery of emotional and tonal centers, Rachmaninov’s music found ready allies. It was no longer fashionable to dismiss Rachmaninov, the composer. His symphonies, the piano concertos, and many of his songs found their way back on to the concert stage in performances by a younger generation of performers for whom Rachmaninov’s musical language was not an anathema.

The All Night Vigil, Op. 37, whose 90th birthday we celebrate this year, has also enjoyed that renewal of interest in Rachmaninov. Composed in less than two months during January and February, 1915, the Vigil met with immense success at its first hearing in the Great Hall of the Russian Noble Assembly on the tenth of March; it received thunderous applause from the audience despite a rule that prohibited such outbursts for sacred music. So popular was the work that it was performed four more times in the same month. Despite this early success, it would prove to be slow-going for performances beyond Russia.

Problems of the First World War, coupled with the Russia’s own internal problems, worked against the work receiving international performances and its due success. Once the 1917 October Revolution swept away Imperial Russia and all the evil and stability it stood for, there was no place for sacred music in the plans for the country’s future for such a sacred piece as Rachmaninov’s. Over the years since it was composed, and especially in the past three decades, however, the piece has attained the position of the finest example of Russian sacred choral music and one of the masterpieces of all sacred choral literature.

Alexander Kastalsky inspired the forty-one year old Rachmaninov to compose these fifteen unaccompanied choral pieces for the Moscow Synodal School, of which Kastalsky was the Director. Rachmaninov, in turn, dedicated the Vigil to the memory of Stepan Smolensky, Kastalsky’s predecessor at the Synodal School and the man who had introduced Rachmaninov to the treasures of early Russian chant.

The Vigil continues the tradition of polyphonic settings of the Russian liturgy of Vespers and Matins composed by Tchaikovsky, Bortniansky, Alexei Livov, and Nicolai Tcherepnin, among others. By the time he composed the Vigil, Rachmaninov had already tried his hand at writing sacred choral music with The Mother of God, Ever-Vigilant in Prayer. A result of his creative work in summer of 1893, shortly after his twentieth birthday, this early concerto for chorus was his last large-scale sacred composition for seventeen years. In June, 1910, Rachmaninov returned to church music, and in the short span of three weeks, composed the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, Opus 31. By that time, the composer had achieved an international reputation as pianist, conductor, and as composer with The Isle of the Dead and the second and third piano concertos, among the major works.

Following the narrow rules that dictated the composition of specific parts of the Vigil, Rachmaninov drew musical inspiration from old Znammeny chants--sacred monophonic vocal music that had been published in 1772--for six of the fifteen movements; he turned to newer “Greek” and Kievan chants for melodic material for four other movements. For the remainder of the movements, Rachmaninov turned to his own invention of chant-like melodies which he described as “conscious counterfeits.” The music of the three chant sources would not have been lost on the religious faithful in Rachmaninov’s audience; that the entire Vigil is a cohesive whole is, in a sense, a true indication of how successful Rachmaninov was in creating, out of the whole cloth of his “conscious counterfeits,” a unity of sound and style that blended in seamlessly with the “derived” music.

In the Russian liturgy, the Vigil is observed Saturday evening and the evenings before other holy days. Consisting of spoken prayers, litanies, various readings, and the singing of unaccompanied music, the six sections which comprise the Vigil--the Invitatory; Verses from Psalm 104; Verses from Psalms 1-3; the Vesper Hymn; Nunc dimittis; and the Ave Maria--unfold, followed by the nine sections of Matins: the Gloria; Laudate Dominum; the Resurrection Hymn; the Veneration of the Cross; Magnificat; a second Gloria; two additional Resurrection Hymns; and the concluding Theotokion--Hymn to the Mother of God.

There are any number of transcendent moments in the music Rachmaninov composed for the Vigil, moments when his music transcends the normal boundaries of musical expression. The hushed opening of the fourth chorus--Gladsome Light--begins in E flat major, but as the tenor soloist enters for a moment, the original key moves up half a step, brightening even more that “Gladsome Light of the holy glory of the Immortal One….” Rachmaninov sets aside the word Slava (“Glory”) for special emphasis in the seventh movement--“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill among men.” Here, sopranos, then tenors, both divided into three parts, utter Slava twice apieceas a prelude to the forthcoming outburst of the entire chorus. Rachmaninov chooses this moment to divide his choir into eleven parts, each part simultaneously repeating the single word, Slava. The overwhelming aural splendor is that of the magnificent sound of Russian church bells pealing joyfully in celebration. “Angelic choiring,” that wonderful turn of phrase that Henry Cowell used to describe some of the music of Charles Ives, also comes to mind for this very moment. Space prohibits dwelling on other equally magical moments, but I must also single out the entire fourteenth movement (“Thou didst rise from the tomb and burst the bonds of Hades!”) where Rachmaninov’s gentle and serene setting contains none of the obvious word painting that one might expect for the triumph of life over death. Rather, the composer dwells on the message that Christ, through His apostles has granted peace to the world. Certainly, this must be one of the most beautiful examples of writing for the voice; the sound is of a transcendent beauty; the serenity and sheer loveliness of the music are nearly ineffable. Finally, belonging to a special category are those moments when the lowest of the bass voices--those renowned and exceptional Russian basses--descend to the subterranean depths of their ranges. The effect is wondrous to hear.

Four recent recordings of the Vigil join a long list of recorded performances of this magnificent choral work. The Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Michael Gläser Conductor, and the St. Petersburg Chamber Choir, under the direction of Nikolai Korniev, recorded their versions of the Vigil in 2002, while the two remaining CDs date from only a year ago: the SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart, Marcus Creed conductor, and Paul Hillier’s Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir.

When four conductors and their ensembles take on a given piece of music, there are bound to be differences in interpretations, notably in the subjective areas of dynamics and tempi. Rachmaninov carefully gives the performers tempo markings, but provides no hint as to precise metronomic speeds for any of the movements. How does one, for example, interpret Poco allegro, ma tranquillo e dolce or even Moderato? Certainly, there are acceptable parameters within which a conductor works for most metronome-free speeds, but what are the allowable boundaries? These dilemmas, certainly not newcomers to music, can be viewed positively, however, for they allow a certain flexibility in one’s re-creation of the music.

These flexibilities are readily apparent as one listens to, and compares, these four recordings. At one end of the tempo spectrum, Michael Gläser and his Bavarian ensemble’s leisurely interpretation of the fifteen movements of the Vigil takes nearly an hour and three minutes. The St. Petersburg group, on the other hand, dispatches the music in less than fifty minutes. That timing, however, is somewhat misleading because Nikolai Korniev’s ensemble omits a movement that the other three choirs include and sing in approximately two minutes. Assuming the inclusion of the omitted movement, Korniev’s performance would still be about ten minutes quicker than the Bavarian interpretation.

More important than the total timing are the tempos of the individual movements. For example, Rachmaninov says that the third movement should be sung “rather fast, but calmly and gently” (Poco allegro, ma tranquillo e dolce). Of the four performances under consideration here, only that of the St. Petersburg Chamber Choir successfully realizes the composer’s intentions. Their tempo is, indeed, a “rather fast” one, bordering on briskness. But the total effect is one of calm and gentleness as the singers dance their way through the movement, and bring a sparkle to the “Alleluia” refrains. The same music sounds labored and lugubrious in the much slower tempo and frequent ritards (although Rachmaninov calls for few) of Gläser and his Bavarian ensemble. Somewhere in the middle ground is the performance by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, with its less than Poco allegro tempo, but with the spirit of calm and gentleness called for. The ensemble brings a certain sense of urgency to the “Alleluias,” by quickening the tempo at each one of these refrains, although Rachmaninov does not indicate this change of tempo.

Now--who is to say which interpretation is the correct one? Certainly, the St. Petersburg performance is closest to the composer’s intentions, but there is also much to be said about Paul Hillier’s reading of the score. To this listener’s mind, the liberties that Hillier takes fall within the boundaries of allowable artistic license, whereas those of Gläser do not because they plainly do not come close to the composer’s call for “rather fast, but calmly and gently.”

One could make similar cases for many of the interpretations of the other fourteen movements of the Vigil, but one more will suffice. Rachmaninov sets the eighth movement, “Praise the Name of the Lord,” to a Znammeny chant which he specifies should be sung spiritoso, molto marcato e ritmico--literally “brilliantly, with a firm and energetic rhythm.” There is no question that all four ensembles do exactly that, but it is in the interpretation of the over-all tempo of Andante where the conductors differ widely.

There is rarely a consensus on the meaning of Andante, one of those truly nebulous tempo markings often translated as “not fast.” Not fast means different things to different performers; the four conductors of this movement clearly illustrate the divergence of opinions as to the interpretation of Rachmaninov’s tempo marking: they range from the very, very slow version of Michael Glaser--again, ponderous and lugubrious in its impact, to the decidedly fast tempo that Nikolai Kergiev brings to the St. Petersburg recording--a speed well above that called for by Rachmaninov and a result that is nearly a full minute faster than Gläser’s performance. In the middle of that range fall the performances of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart.

One would be remiss if the performances by the soloists were not taken into account. Rachmaninov calls for an alto soloist in one movement and for a tenor soloist in three other movements. In each instance, the soloist is given musical material derived from respective chant melodies for the given movement. The tenor makes a brief appearance for only seven measures in the ninth movement. There, he is given the words “The time for sorrow has come to an end! Do not weep, but announce the resurrection to the apostles,” followed shortly by “but the Angel said to [the myrrhbearers].” In the fourth movement, “Gladsome Light,” the tenor makes an equally short visit, singing ‘we praise the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit--God.”

If one wonders why Rachmaninov called for a soloist for such brief appearances, the same question cannot be asked of the tenor’s lengthy appearance in the fifth movement, the Nunc dimmitis, with its moving words uttered by Simeon: “Lord, lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation.” Rachmaninov said of this movement: “My favorite number in the work, which I love as I do The Bells, is the fifth canticle….I should like this sung at my funeral.” Regrettably, this was not to be.

The tenor, singing the melody of a Kievan chant, is accompanied by the rest of the choir which sings a gently rocking musical pattern. Alexander Yudenkov and Mati Turi, the tenor soloists for the Stuttgart and the Estonian choral groups, respectively, acquit themselves well in their performances. Both possess full, beautiful, and impressive voices, fully capable of meeting the demands Rachmaninov makes. Anton Rosner, the tenor soloist for the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, has sung with this ensemble for longer than any other member. There are hints in this performance of what his voice must have sounded like when he was younger. Unfortunately, for this recording, Rosner cannot recapture that voice. He sharpens notes, loses the “center” of the pitch, and appears to struggle for notes that must have been easy for him earlier in his career.

Regrettably, neither the tenor soloist nor the alto soloist are given credit in the recording by the St. Petersburg Chamber Choir. The unidentified tenor soloist possesses a light, lyric voice that at times does not quite cut through the accompanying choir. Is this the voice of a young singer? One is tempted to think so because it seems that the soloist is not yet comfortable singing Rachmaninov’s notes--he has yet to make the part his own.

Ulrike Koch, the alto soloist in the SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart recording, possesses a voice capable of being heard above and through the choir, but her performance here seems like that of a neutral observer, as if she is not fully engaged in the performance. Theresa Blank’s singing for the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks is marked by a full voice that is, unfortunately, not always centered. The lyrical flow to the melody is often missing in her performance, which tends to be “notey.” The unidentified alto soloist on the St. Petersburg recording tends to gasp for air at inopportune moments, resulting in numerous interruptions of phrases. Additionally, she takes considerable liberties with the tempo and often sings just a bit under the pitch. Iris Oja, singing for the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, has a full, earthy sound, one that occasionally is a bit rough around the edges. Having said that, however, hers is an excellent performance that brings to the music a warmth missing in the three other interpretations.

One of the glories of Russian sacred music is the bass voice and the ability, among some basses, to descend to the subterrestrial regions of the human voice. The best of these basses can produce a tone that seems to rumble throughout the chord in which the tone appears and which adds a depth to the chord. The effect is unsurpassable in its warmth and richness. The Vigil is replete with examples of the lowest of the basses descending to the nether areas of low D, C, and even B-flat. Criticized by N. M. Danilin, the conductor of the first performance of the Vigil, who said of the slow descent of the lowest basses to a concluding low B-flat in the Nunc dimmitis movement, “Now where on earth are we to find such basses? They are as rare as asparagus at Christmas,” Rachmaninov replied that Danilin “…did find them. I knew the voices of my countrymen, and I well knew what demands I could make upon Russian basses!”

While the basses in three of these recordings attain varying degrees of success in pulling off those low notes, it is Vladimir Miller of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir who stands head and shoulders above the others. Miller, listed as the basso profundo, brings to the performance all that that term means as he adds immeasurably to the total performance, not only in leading the way to the lowest notes required by Rachmaninov, but in singing intonations--intonations on pitches that absolutely rumble in their intensity, strength, and sureness--that precede four of the movements. Would that conductor Danilin been able to hear Vladimir Miller sing he would have realized that here was one of those rare examples of “asparagus at Christmas.”

In considering the choral ensembles for all four recordings, I should point out a number of the positive ingredients that each brings to their performance. The SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart’s performance exhibits fine control, a good blend, and a warm sound in its singing. Conductor Marcus Creed, who received his training, in part, at King’s College, Cambridge, brings to this performance an intelligent and musical grasp of the demands that Rachmaninov places on singers. For the most part, he and his musicians have succeeded in making a recording that compares favorably with performances of some other groups in the past

The performance of the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks suffers initially from an interpretation that seems to lack spontaneity, that seems to be too calculated early on. This may well be owing to the very slow tempos of Michael Gläser’s reading. The ponderous quality of the performance does not allow for any dancing of the music--when that is called for. Having said these things, I feel that the performance improves consistently as the work progresses. Nevertheless, the early impression is what one remembers most.

The St. Petersburg Chamber Choir’s recording is something of a puzzle. When one invests the time, energy, and expense of preparing for a recording, one would think that all due care would be exercised in making certain that the final product would be as first-class as is possible. This simply does not seem to be the case here. Alto and tenor soloists should have received the professional courtesy of identification somewhere in the liner notes. Even Nikolai Korniev, the conductor, receives nothing more than the printing of his name on two occasions. There is no choir roster. The error that gives, in at least two places, the incorrect date of 1945 for Rachmaninov’s death, rather than the correct 1943, may seem a simple one, but it is enough to make one wonder about the level of care with which the entire enterprise was undertaken. Without giving any reason, the performance omits the thirteenth movement--the Troparion, “Today salvation has come to the world,” skipping to the fourteenth--the Troparion, “Thou didst rise from the tomb.” While one Troparion, rather than both, is sung within the context of a Resurrectional All-Night Vigil service, it has become common practice, in concert performances of the Vigil, to sing both Troparia. The performance itself suffers from tempi that are generally faster--and sometimes a good deal faster--than those called for by Rachmaninov; from the many ritards and fermatas placed where Rachmaninov has not specified any; and from a zealous choir that tends to over-sing fortes and fortissimos that too often result in an unpleasant choral sound.

Of the four ensembles represented here, it is Paul Hillier’s Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir that most demands of the Rachmaninov Vigil. The blend of the voices, the precision of their entries, the singing of the alto and tenor soloists, the superb intonations by the bassso profundo, Hillier’s attention to detail, and the subtleties that he and his singers bring to the performance all create a first-rate recording. An excellent example of the subtlety with which Hillier and his choir approach the music can be seen is in the penultimate movement--“Thou didst rise from the the tomb.” Beginning at a bit past the midpoint of the movement and going to its end (measures 21 through 31 in the score), the choir is given music of ineffable beauty (not that this doesn’t occur elsewhere) if the altos, then the tenors, and finally the sopranos, in succession, bring out their notes ever so slightly. This, the Estonian singers do with great subtlety; the result is a sound that leaves the listener awestruck at the power that even the quietest of some music has when it is performed superbly.

“I felt like a ghost wandering in a world grown alien. I cannot cast out the old way of writing and I cannot acquire the new.” Looking back at that particular time in the twentieth century, it is easy to understand Rachmaninov’s despondency. There was no room in the musical mainstream for his sort of expression once the twentieth century began. As that century wore on, however, we could see that, in being true to himself and to his musical language, Rachmaninov’s style was prophetic of what was to come. By century’s end, more began to embrace a music in which a tonal center, in which emotion, had significant places--a musical world that, for the time, restored Rachmaninov, the composer, to his rightful place.

What Sergei Rachmaninov accomplished in the short span of six weeks in 1915 was the creation of the greatest piece of Russian sacred choral music--a miraculous blend of Russian chant and a musical language that did not fear emotion or passion. In its own way, the Vigil belongs to that rank of compositions given over to the glory of God, Bach’s Mass in B Minor, and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis being chief among them.

The recording of Paul Hillier and his Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir is one worthy of standing along side the best recordings of the Vigil that have been made in the past.

Clayton Henderson
Saint Mary’s College
Notre Dame, Indiana

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