Rachmaninov: All-Night Vigil

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Rachmaninov
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
ALBUM TITLE: Rachmaninov
WORKS: All-Night Vigil
PERFORMER: Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Paul Hillier
CATALOGUE NO: HMU 907384
It’s astonishing to see yet another new recording of Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil, to set beside the half-dozen or so I reviewed some months back, and the admirable Signum recording from Nigel Short’s group Tenebrae I wrote about only in April. Clearly the piece touches a nerve, the same nerve perhaps that’s touched by the wave of minimalist-flavoured religious music that’s now so popular.

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Composers and performers from Baltic countries have been prominent in this new trend, in particular the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir featured on this CD. And singer and choir director Paul Hillier has also been a notable exponent of Baltic ‘spiritual’ music, particularly Arvo Pärt. It’s fascinating to see the encounter between this new, otherworldly form of religious sensibility and the fervent and very Russian intensity of Rachmaninov.

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The performance is undeniably distinguished, with a fastidious vocal blend and a beautiful recorded sound. Whereas most other versions begin with Rachmaninov’s setting of ‘Come, let us Worship’ this one starts with the choir’s fine basso profundo giving us the appropriate liturgical intonation on a bottom C. It’s symptomatic of Hillier’s attention to detail, which certainly makes for a spotless performance. But his soloists seemed colourless when compared to those on Tenebrae’s version. And placed next to the amazing intensity of the Ukrainian version under Yevhen Savchuck on Regis – my original first choice – the Estonian recording seems pallid, like a candle brought out into the sunshine. Hillier and the Estonians are scrupulous, beautifully shaped, and sincere; the Ukrainians have that total conviction that comes from a tradition that’s lived rather then learned. Ivan Hewett