Long gone are the days when Rachmaninov’s Vigil was a rarity among Western choirs; it has assumed, rightly, the status not only of a choral classic, but of a masterpiece of choral writing that transcends rites, genres and languages. While the field is, indeed, now somewhat crowded, these new recordings are very welcome additions.
The London Symphony Chorus, under Simon Halsey, show not only evidence of great familiarity with the performing and recorded tradition of the work in terms of pacing and rhetoric, but also an injection of peculiarly British choral timbre, which brings a welcome and different perspective. There is, for example, a clear awareness of the Russian tradition behind the way the emphasis is accorded to the ‘Alleluias’ of the third movement, ‘Blazhen muzh’, just as there is in the way alto soloist Christine Jasper approaches the solo writing in the preceeding movement, ‘Blagoslovi, dushe moya’. In that same movement, however, the upper voices are characterised by a sound that is very far indeed from that of Russian choirs, and Slavic choirs in general, lighter in colour and, at times, suggestive of boy trebles. The men do achieve a darker sound, essential in this work – of fundamental importance, indeed – in several of the moments, not least the ‘Nïne otpushchayeshï’, with the famous low B flat for the basses that even shocked the work’s first conductor, Danilin, when he saw the score. Here Dan Owers makes a fine job of the solo tenor part, but I feel that the pace is a little faster than is ideal, though in general speeds are very well judged indeed.
Tuning throughout is superb, as it needs to be with the kind of octave duplication so characteristic of Rachmaninov’s ‘choral orchestration’. Only one element in this fine recording needed more work, and that is pronunciation: vowels are consistently English-inflected, and there is little sign of the dark Russian ‘l’.
The recording by the Saint Thomas Choir, under the much-missed John Scott, is, predictably, completely different. The only other comparable version, of an entirely male choir with boy trebles, is that of King’s College, Cambridge, recorded in under Stephen Cleobury in 1999 (EMI/Warner, 4/99), though the sound of the two choirs is quite different, principally because of the brightness of the King’s trebles; the Americans have a rather smoother, more rounded timbre.
Unlike Halsey, Scott includes the opening blessing, to which the choir’s ‘Amin’ and subsequent invocation are a response. These are followed by a rendition of ‘Blagoslovi, dushe moya’ that is daringly slow; Scott knew the capabilities of his singers, however, and it works superbly, with Ory Brown the excellent soloist. ‘Blazhen muzh’ really shows the choir at its most Anglican-sounding, so to speak, in that the countertenors have a particularly important role here, the trebles appearing for the refrains; ‘Blagosloven yesi, Gospodi’ and the opening of the ‘Nïne otpuschayeshï’ also show the countertenors off particularly well, though the rocking motion of the rhythmic groupings in the latter is phrased in slightly too exaggerated a fashion, and soloist David Vanderwal also overdoes the portamento for my taste. The basses, reinforced by the extraordinary Glenn Miller, cope more than creditably with the passage down to the low B flat, though Halsey’s team is just as convincing. Memorable passages from elsewhere in the recording include a slow-paced, blazing rendition of ‘Slava v vyshnïkh Bogu’, a truly incandescent yet taut ‘Khvalite imya Gospodne’ and a beautifully poised ‘Velichit dusha moya’ in which the basses are particularly outstanding.
The recording, made in Saint Thomas’s in 2008, is as clear as a bell, every detail audible, and the detailed notes are by Scott himself. It is a magnificent rendition, showing just how this masterpiece has been convincingly absorbed into the wider choral tradition, and I recommend it very highly indeed.