Rachmaninoff: All-Night Vigil (Vespers)

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Rachmaninoff
LABELS: EMI
WORKS: All-Night Vigil (Vespers)
PERFORMER: Choir of King’s College, Cambridge/Stephen Cleobury
CATALOGUE NO: CDC 5 56752 2
Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil of 1915 forms a climax to the great Russian Orthodox liturgical tradition, eclipsing even its noble 19th-century predecessors. It makes massive demands on its performers: its prolonged vocal lines, subtle transitions and atmosphere of soaring devotional intensity are fiendishly hard to sustain.

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The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, under Stephen Cleobury is on terrific form at present. Yet even their immaculate EMI recording of East European repertoire, Ikos, does not prepare one adequately for the breathtakingly inspired, loving performance they serve up here – one of such sustained beauty, restraint, insight, taste and sensitivity that it is almost beyond praise.

The important tenor solos, notably Rachmaninoff’s exquisite Nunc dimittis, where the cantor soars above the choir in visionary rapture, are gorgeously executed; likewise the melting alto solo ‘Blagoslovi, dushe moya, Gospoda’ (‘Bless the Lord, O my soul’), prefaced by hushed Amens. But it is the choir’s stylish contributions whose quality consistently takes the breath away. The balance between voices, including fine low basses, is impeccable, and the boys’ breathing a miracle of concentration and discipline. No climax is arrived at prematurely or overloaded; there is not even a hint of a ragged or hesitant start. They pace this taxing music as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

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There are several particularly fine versions of the Vespers available, including the admirable Corydon Singers on Hyperion. For those who prefer the full-blooded congregational feel of a Russian performance, the older Sveshnikov version still, to my mind, surpasses the St Petersburg Capella on Philips. Roderic Dunnett