Rachmaninov
Bozhestvenaya Liturgia Svatago Ioanna Zlatoustago, Op.31 (Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom)
Celebrant – Deacon Tobias Sims
Deacon – Protodeacon Peter Scorer

Choir of King's College, Cambridge
Stephen Cleobury

Recorded between 7-10 July 2003 in The Chapel of King's College, Cambridge
CD No: EMI 5576772
Duration: 75 minutes
Reviewed: January 2005
Having recorded Rachmaninov's Vespers for EMI (5556752), the Choir of King's College, Cambridge now turns its attention to the rather less familiar Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom – and with comparably compelling results.
For the All-Night Vigil (Vespers), Rachmaninov included a number of existing chants, but the Liturgy consists entirely of original music, though firmly rooted in the Russian Orthodox tradition.
The twenty-three sections which make up the musical setting of the Divine Liturgy alternate between passages where the Celebrant or Deacon chant and the choir responds (such as the “Litany” which recurs several times, albeit with subtle alterations) and more extended settings for choir alone, the most expansive of which is the ‘Credo’.
Objectively speaking, and in terms of 'authentic' performance-practice, it would have be stated that this King's College performance is quite 'wrong' in that an all-male choir would not have been in Rachmaninov's conception – a Slavic mixed-voice chorus would have been the intended performers.
But I would venture to suggest that Rachmaninov would have been utterly captivated had he heard a performance of such subtlety, nuance and dedication as Stephen Cleobury draws so sensitively and perceptively from his young voices.
Rarely can the gentle harmonic gradations have been realised with the acuity that has been achieved in the generous King's College Chapel acoustic, where the liberal reverberation positively enhances the glow of the vocal textures. Problematic though it may be for recording purposes and arguably unsuited to some of the repertoire that has been recorded within it, here the spacious sound is well-nigh ideal.
The voices are unaccompanied throughout, but there is no sense of variety lacking owing to the care with which Rachmaninov deploys his resources. The opening of the Third Antiphon (In your kingdom, remember us, O Lord), for instance, finds trebles and altos alternating with tenors and basses: a simple enough idea, but most movingly realised here. Somehow the rather 'cool', slightly objectified timbre of King's College Choir makes this music all the more affecting. Couple this with Cleobury's customary scrupulous attention to intonation and one is some considerable distance away from blowsy sopranos wandering dubiously around the written notes as are to be found on recordings from Russia or Eastern Europe.
Much of the music is slow and reflective, so that when moments of animation and fervour occur, they are telling indeed. Such a passage occurs to conclude the section “Mercy and Peace” where words from the ‘Sanctus’ (Holy, holy, holy) are included. By contrast, the music that follows is raptly prayerful and an eloquent treble solo (not named) heightens the expressive intent of this passage.
The 'solo' parts, which would, in a liturgical context, be sung by clergy are here delivered appropriately and reverently by the bass-like voice of Protodeacon Peter Scorer and the lighter, tenor-ish Deacon Tobias Sims. Clergy – of whatever denomination – are not renowned for vocal prowess or quality but between them Scorer and Sims declaim their crucial roles with a refinement and sensitivity that must be rare in any performance of Rachmaninov's Liturgy.
The choir as a whole sounds quite at ease with this idiom; the second bass line is completely comfortable in the nether regions to which it frequently has to extend, whilst the overall blend ensures a homogeneity which enables the listener to appreciate the rarefied harmonic colouring of the music.
In sum, this is a really entrancing disc. The music is clearly deeply felt and most affectionately performed. Of course it is worlds apart from the 'familiar' Rachmaninov of concerto and symphony and, one might mention, those contemporary composers whose supposed attempts to express 'spirituality' of one kind or another seem merely to mask a poverty of musical invention.
As an example of 'spiritual' music from a composer who has gained a reputation for being one of the most 'worldly' creators, this CD will perhaps alter received perceptions of Sergei Rachmaninov. In any event, Rachmaninov's Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom has seldom – if ever – been so convincingly committed to disc, and I suspect it will be a long time before a performance of this quality and dedication is heard again.

 

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