Chamber Choir/Paul Hillier – Harmonia mundi HMU 907384, 53:56 *****:
This is I believe the fifth Rachmaninoff Vespers received for review
here in the past couple years. That’s highly unusual. What’s even more
unusual is that all the others were multichannel SACDs and this one is
plain old two-channel CD and I find I prefer it!
Tchaikovsky was the first Russian composer to create a new choral
liturgical work; the Russian Orthodox religion didn’t allow
instrumental music at all and tightly controlled the type of choral
music used in services. Rachmaninoff admired the Tchaikovsky work, The
Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, and decided to try his hand at the
form. The Vespers or “All Night Vigil” was the magnificent result.
There are 14 different sections, prayers or chants. The harmonic and
melodic expression is of course far beyond the monodic or simple
polyphony normally practiced in the Orthodox Church, but the Vespers
were designed primarily for concert hall performance.
The last SACD version which appealed to me was the Pentatone 5.0
channel version with the St. Petersburg Chamber Choir conducted by
Nikolai Korniev. However, it seems to lack the deep subwoofer-tweaking
Russian male bassos that would be expected in the St. Petersburg Choir,
while the Estonia Choir has those fellows in spades. Perhaps the
problem was the recording technique used; I don’t know. I just find
that the bass and baritone support in the lower regions greatly
increases the appeal of these 15 affirmations of religious faith.
Rachmaninoff uses a wide array of special tonal and harmonic effects
that go way beyond the normal Orthodox chants. Thus his choral music
has something of the same modern appeal as does that of Francis
Poulenc, who also pushed the boundaries of what could be done in
liturgical music. It’s difficult for me to believe I like this CD
better than any of the SACD versions, but I do, and even without
running it thru Pro Logic II – although it does add a welcome feeling
of being in the church with the choir.