Rachmaninov: Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom Op. 31

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COMPOSERS: Rachmaninov
LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom Op. 31
PERFORMER: Corydon Singers/Matthew Best
CATALOGUE NO: CDA66703 DDD

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There has been an impressive recent glut of recordings of the Orthodox rite: Russia, Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia have all featured on labels such as Koch, Harmonia Mundi, Ikon and Jade. If you seek the atmosphere and aura of a service, you may not mind the background clatter of Night Vigil. Here, in St Petersburg’s Cathedral of the Transfiguration, the swish of censers and shuffle of celebrants greets you amidst intoned prayers. At its most frenetic, it’s a bit like a busy Aeroflot terminal.

Words are not printed – a drawback; but impressive for its bells and smells. The more seasoned St Petersburg Chamber Choir’s Rachmaninov Vespers has some fine moments: later, fast sections especially come alive. But there are reservations, too: the acoustic is a bit spongy, the upper line seems pinched early on, some leads are foggy, and the tenor solo is charming but limp. Best for the well-honed dynamics, though these at times exaggerate the slightly self-conscious sense of ‘performance’.

The chemistry of a truly great reading, though in the air, just eludes. For real punch, I might turn (despite a few tuning problems) to the sparser Gretchaninov Liturgy of St John Chrysostum (Olympia OCD 447), whose rich acoustic (Moscow Radio’s Studio 5) sounds more cavernous than any cathedral. But by far the best is the Corydon Singers’ latest offering. Rachmaninov’s 1910 version of the Orthodox daily rite once fell foul of liturgical purists. Here the Corydon’s tuning is impeccable, their sense of atmosphere just right – leisurely, tender and reverential, rather than awesome or prissy.

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The choir’s clear sound is uplifting: a worthy follow-up to its admirable Vespers on Hyperion CDA 66460. Roderic Dunnett