WORKS: All-Night Vigil; Now the Powers of Heaven; In Thy Kingdom
PERFORMER: James Bowman (countertenor); Holst Singers/Stephen Layton
CATALOGUE NO: CDA 67080
The all-night vigil is an Orthodox act of worship, taking place on Saturday night and lasting until dawn, though this setting, thankfully, lasts only a little over 40 minutes. Tchaikovsky established it as a serious musical form with his All-Night Vigil for unaccompanied chorus in 1881, and many of his contemporaries and successors took it up as a genre, including Grechaninov, in 1912. Intended, it is thought, for the concert hall, this is a stately and august work, rich in colour, texture and resonance, and despite being based on a series of chants, epic, almost operatic, in its ambition.
The Holst Singers is a young, mixed, London-based amateur choir, whose president, James Bowman, sounding rather ripe and wavering, sings the calls in one of the Vigil’s preceding prayers. It is an expertly disciplined ensemble, and technically its musicianship is impeccable. The problem is that this performance lacks any sort of mystical or Slavonic dimension. This may be due to problems with language. No Russian coach is credited, and certainly some of the inflections and pronunciations suggest the singers are simply reading off transliterations with which they’re only superficially familiar. Their sound is polite and restrained, when what’s needed is the earthiness and sincerity of real Russian basses and boy sopranos. Claire Wrathall