Alexander Gretchaninov, like his contemporary Sergei Rachmaninov, wrote some interesting and beautiful choral music in his time, and on this recording, the Holst Singers under Stephen Layton present a survey of that music, including his "All-Night Vigil" setting. The result is a truly breathtaking combination of unbelievably good singing and remarkable music.
According to the notes, the Holst Singers are an amateur choral society, but their performance on this (their second recording for Hyperion) could teach even professional ensembles a thing or two! The balance is superb, the tone is just right for this musical style, and there is a sense of loving attention poured into each and every note. As for the music, it is something of an acquired taste: those familiar with Rachmaninov's choral music will recognise many of the same elements, including overt and 'Romantic-sounding' harmonies and a rich texture created with heavy divisions in all four parts of the choir. Gretchaninov's setting is around twenty minutes shorter than Rachmaninov's (though there's still quite a bit on the disc, especially with the addition of two motets and a responsorial canticle). By far the most striking thing about this music is the writing for the low basses. Rachmaninov called for a handful of low B flats in his "Vigil;" Gretchaninov has low As and even what sounds like a low A flat! in addition to long sections in which the second basses never rise above a low F. For this reason, the Holst Singers are supplemented on this recording by four of Britain's deepest basses (including Jeremy Birchall, whose exceptionally low notes were used to record John Tavener's "Theophany" some years ago). I am astonished that something so guttural can also be so beautiful and moving to hear - if this doesn't haunt you, it is hard to imagine what will...
James Bowman fans may already know that he is a patron of the Holst Singers, hence he has appeared with them in concert and on record. Unfortunately, in the case of this particular record, 'appearance' really is an operative term: he is only on one track and he takes the role of a cantor, thus being limited to about four notes! Even so, it is a welcome sound, and adds even more to what is a deeply musical experience, moving and joyful.
Listeners hungry for more after having heard Rachmaninov's "All-Night Vigil" should purchase this without hesitation.