Rachmaninov: All-Night Vigil

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Rachmaninov
WORKS: All-Night Vigil
PERFORMER: Raissa Palmu (soprano), Erja Wimeri (contralto), Eugen Antoni (tenor); Finnish National Opera Chorus/Eric-Olof Söderström
CATALOGUE NO: 8.555908
This is one of those pieces where ‘listening with an open mind’ – that virtuous attitude we critics always like to claim for ourselves – seems even more implausible than usual. If you’re faced with a clutch of recordings, some Western, some Russian, isn’t there bound to be a prejudice in favour of the latter? Won’t there be an assumption that no English cathedral choir bass could ever muster the bottomless profundity of a Russian, or a male alto the bosomy intensity of a Russian contralto? Of course there will be; but the current range of recordings of Rachmaninov’s sublime All-Night Vigil (misleadingly known in the West as the Vespers) only partly bears it out. The basses of King’s College Choir (on EMI) are as rock-steady in the lowest register as the National Academic Choir of Ukraine (on Regis), and the numerous solos are sung with a subjective intensity one doesn’t normally hear from King’s. Much the same could be said of the Corydon Singers on Hyperion. Nevertheless there is a fundamental difference in aesthetic. The British versions aim at sublimity; they luxuriate in vast resonances and subtle gradations of pianissimo. The Ukrainians (and also the Swedish Radio Choir on Virgin) go for drama. The tempi are significantly quicker, the dynamic contrasts sharper. The new version on Naxos from the Finnish National Opera Chorus falls very much on the Russian side of this divide. If anything, the Finns are even more dramatic than the Ukrainians, and my first impression was that they would emerge as clear winners. Unfortunately the recording is let down by the soloists; the contralto soloist particularly is altogether too wobbly for comfort. For all-round strength, and an intensity Rachmaninov might have recognised as authentic, the Ukrainian choir under Yevhen Savchuck on Regis is the one to go for. Ivan Hewett