All-Night Vigil (Rachmaninov’s Vespers)

All-Night Vigil (Vespers), Op.37

Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Paul Hillier

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 12 August, 2008
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Paul HillierFor his second trip to the Proms this year, Paul Hillier (who had previously taken part in a performance of Stockhausen’s “Stimmung”) brought with him the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. For seven years, until last year, Hillier was Artistic Director and Chief Conductor and the manner in which the group performs together is a testament to the strength of this relationship.

Rachmaninov was never a devout Christian though the music and traditions of the church were essential to his creative makeup. His grandmother was very religious and attended regular services in St Petersburg. As a child Rachmaninov accompanied her; after returning home he would recall all he had heard as he sat at the piano and was rewarded financially for his pains by his grandmother.

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)Rachmaninov’s “All-Night Vigil” (more commonly known as “Vespers”) was composed in the first months of 1915. The outbreak of the First World War had been a shock to Rachmaninov who had spent much time in Dresden composing and had a great love of German culture. Perhaps as an antithesis the composer turned to the music of his childhood. “All-Night Vigil” appears to have not been performed liturgically, which seems fitting, as the first performance in March 1915 was in the Great Hall of the Nobility in Moscow rather than a church.

The piece was a success from the start although it is less often performed than Rachmaninov’s other music. This is largely due to the low tessitura of the work; the bass part frequently drops to D below the stave and is also taken further below, to B flat. This is not a work for amateur voices and yet, when sung well, sounds effortless and quite manageable.

The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir appeared at ease, even if the exposed bottom B flat at the end of the fifth movement (‘Nunc dimittis’) was a little croaky. The altos, powerful when they needed to be, were exemplary throughout and in particular in the eighth movement.Paul Hillier has had this work in his repertoire for some time. He recorded it this choir in 2005 for Harmonia Mundi in a recording that received an award in Germany but sadly has been less successful in the UK where his recordings of Arvo Pärt have gained more attention. In February 2007 Paul Hillier received the order of the White Star for services rendered to the state of Estonia.

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