This recording joins what is now a very crowded market indeed, so much has Rachmaninov’s masterpiece become part of the choral repertoire the world over. The MDR Rundfunkchor already has experience with Russian choral repertoire, having recently recorded a fine disc of Bortnyansky and Schnittke, and Estonian conductor Risto Joost’s familiarity with the Russian tradition helps to make this an outstanding addition to that market.
The tone (or rather, the stage) is set by the addition of the dialogue between deacon and priest before the opening choral ‘Amin’, so that it does not simply come out of nowhere. Contralto Klaudia Zeiner is truly excellent in the following ‘Blagoslovi, dushe moya’, as is the tenor Falk Hoffmann, notably in the ‘Nyne otpuschaeshi’, where he finds exactly the right combination of lightness and incision. Neither does the bass section disappoint in the famous descent down to the low B flat. Joost paces the work very well indeed, understanding that there is a dramatic arc which it is imperative to transmit, so that the work is not merely a sequence of isolated events, though there are individual moments that particularly stand out, such as the crescendo of the final section of ‘Svete tikhi’ or the bouncing final section of ‘Blagosloven esi Gospodi’. He takes a risk with the slow speeds he chooses for ‘Bogoroditse Devo’ and the ‘Shestopsalmie’ but it pays off, because the tension never lets up, the line is never lost.
Pronunciation of the Slavonic by both choir and soloists is excellent, though somebody should have caught the egregious statement in the booklet that ‘All works are sung in the Russian language’ … indeed, the only serious reservations I have concern the booklet: the translations into English of the texts were made from German, not from Slavonic, and are correspondingly odd; there are similarly some infelicities in the translation of Harald Hodeige’s extensive notes. None of this detracts from the performance itself, however, which can join the ranks of the very best available. The excellent recording was made at the Paul-Gerhardt-Kirche in Leipzig.