We are invited to lift our spirits through a deeply inspired performance of Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil.

RACHMANINOV: All-Night Vigil (Vespers and Matins), Op. 37 – Mariya Berezovska, alto/ Dmitry Ivanchenko, tenor/ Gloriae Dei Cantores/ The St. Romanos Cappella/ The Patriarch Tikhon Choir/ The Washington Master Chorale/ Peter Jermihov – Paraclete multichannel SACD GDCD 063, 66:34 (3/3/17) [Distr. by Naxos] *****:

Sergei Rachmaninov, who always maintained strong, religious convictions, conceived his “The Most Important Hymns of the All-Night Vigil” for a performance of 10 March 1915, meant as a conglomerate of selected liturgical hymns and canticles now condensed into a choral cycle. Rachmaninov, however, did not intend in his fifteen movements to supplant any Orthodox ritual: he wished to express a subjective declaration of religious devotion in terms of the Greek, Klevan, and Great Znamenny (melismatic) Chants which he had come to admire, despite any personal animosity he had sustained in courting his cousin for marriage and having encountered Church resistance. Rachmaninov combined ten, pre-existing chants with five freely composed settings, each of which exploits the modal intervals of a third, fourth, and fifth, so they become indistinguishable from ancient settings, given the composer’s absorption of the essential, syntactical doxology. The fact that Rachmaninov uses humming as a transitional device to establish continuity adds a unique touch to a venerated tradition.

In his own note for this recording, conductor Peter Jermihov addresses the issue of authenticity, the stylistic and dynamic arrangements that best approach what Rachmaninov may have conceived in his own, practiced ear. Jermihov contends that Rachmaninov had found an ideal ensemble in the Moscow Synodal Choir – fifty boys and thirty men – what Jermihov conceives of as “a pyramidal tone structure, rich and thick at the bottom registers and pure and thin in the upper voices.” This layered structure corresponds to the ethos of the work, which embraces a Biblical, hymanl “chronology” from the Creation of the World to the Birth of Christ.

Rachmaninov left no tempo or metronome markings in his score, only designations for pulse and affect, like “rather quickly, rather slowly, not quickly, peacefully, gently, lightly, with bold rhythm,” assuming that the practiced conductors and singers would have imbibed the correct tempo and character of a trope or hymn in its proper, church style. A superb instance occurs in No. 9, the d minor “Blessed Art Thou, Lord,” with its large periods, including a rapt tenor solo and dancelike rhythms that well suggest the Three Russian Songs, Op. 41.  The largest of the freely-composed sections, the Magnificat from St. Luke, No. 11 from the Matins section, “My Soul Magnifies the Lord,” blends a number of voice ensembles, alternating timbres, textures, and modalities. In a verse-refrain structure, the movement typifies the five such “original” settings, alternating antiphonal and responsorial psalmody.  What remains remarkable lies in the voices’ approximation of instrumental sounds, much like a Bach diapason-concept for organ, with pedal points over which stratified colors evolve, evocations of strings, winds, and brass.

For the work itself, given as part of a war-relief effort in 1915, Rachmaninov declared the text of No. 5, “Lord, Now Lettest Thou,” taken from the story of Simeon in the Gospel of Luke, to be his personal favorite.  Simeon had been promised by God that he would not die until he saw the Messiah. When the newborn Jesus was brought to the temple, Simeon realized who he was. He blessed God, saying, “Lord, now lettest thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word, for my eyes have seen Thy salvation.” Rachmaninoff said of this movement: “My favorite number in the work . . . is the fifth canticle . . . I should like this sung at my funeral.” We, too, auditioning the work’s low B-flat, feel that de profundis emotion that marks the true or aspiring believer.

This performance rings with devotional majesty, the various men’s and women’s voices raised in sublime exaltation in a series of ecstatic meditations, of which No. 13 Troparion, based on the words of St. John of Damascus, proclaims that “Salvation hath come in the world.” The Vigil itself concludes with the No. 15, Kantakion of the Feast of the Annunciation, in which the Mother of God receives appropriate esteem.  She intercedes for a fallen Humanity, urging her Son to enlighten and sanctify each person who enters this world, universalizing the promise of Divine forgiveness.

The stunning surround sound of this recording comes to us through the combined efforts of Keith O. Johnson and Sean Royce Martin.

—Gary Lemco