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Rachmaninov: Liturgy of St John Chrysostom

Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir/Kaspars Putniņš (BIS)

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

Rachmaninov
Liturgy of St John Chrysostom
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir/Kaspars Putniņš
BIS BIS-2571 (CD/SACD)   59:26 mins

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Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil, a towering masterpiece in Russian Orthodox liturgical music, has rather overshadowed his very fine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom composed five years earlier in 1910. Unlike the Vigil, Rachmaninov’s Liturgy, though steeped in his life-long love of Orthodox music and ceremony, does not make use of any of the traditional chants; and purists sternly noted its ‘operatic nuances and symphonic refinements’, such as the solo soprano entry with its chromatic inflection in ‘Tebye poyem’ (We hymn thee) – something Rachmaninov very artfully avoids in his Vigil.

Still, the Liturgy is a very attractive work, including such highlights as the beautiful Cherubic Hymn. In this recording, the excellent Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir sings not only with exemplary tuning and purity of tone – with just a touch of vibrato in the sopranos – but with a degree of warmth and expression to make this a truly touching and uplifting performance. Every movement is given, though not all complete: many of the liturgical chants by the bass Deacon and the tenor Celebrant have been omitted, together with Rachmaninov’s composed responses for the choir. The opening Great Litany, for instance, is cut to a mere token starter rather than the Full Monty as given by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge with its two characterful soloists. But if you prefer a mixed-voiced choir rather than an all-male and rather Anglican experience, and don’t mind missing some of the solo chanting and choral responses, then this can be warmly recommended.

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Daniel Jaffé