Top positive review
7 people found this helpful
on 6 September 2014
It was Tchaikovsky who described the powerful atmosphere surrounding the Russian Orthodox rite, saying `There is nothing like entering an ancient church on a Saturday, standing in the semi-darkness with the scent of incense wafting through the air, lost in deep contemplation searching for an answer to those perennial questions, wherefore, when, whither and why?' Tchaikovsky said it, but the composer who most recreated the feel of it all in music was Rachmaninov. Rachmaninov lived in voluntary but irreversible exile from his native land and culture, and we can hear deep nostalgia in his Vespers and Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. Without in any way detracting from his sincerity we can also hear a conscious effort to sound Russian to the ears of western listeners who doubtless had stereotyped ideas of what that sounded like. Tchaikovsky after all lived (basically) in Russia and composed as a Russian for Russians without any need to force the idiom. His beautiful setting of the St John Chrysostom Liturgy was also intended, I'm in no doubt, for performance in church. I am almost as certain that Rachmaninov would have thought his own masterpieces appropriate for that, but it's fair to say that he was also pushing the boundaries a bit between the altar and the concert-platform.
The Liturgy is the Orthodox counterpart of the Catholic Mass, and the St John Chrysostom version is the `basic' version. Orthodox ritual is entirely sung, but instruments are not allowed, and the same goes for the Vespers. In the Roman rite Vespers have had far less attention from composers than Masses have, and for a good many of us our knowledge of musical settings of the Vespers begins and ends with Monteverdi's masterpiece. What a pleasure it is to have a modern setting that also represents a different religious tradition, one especially pleasing inclusion being a 20th-century Magnificat to place beside not only Monteverdi's but also Bach's. What neither of those masters set (so far as I know) was the Te Deum, but that text found Handel, Berlioz, Verdi and Bruckner at their best and Rachmaninov's Great Doxology (item 12) incorporates its text, although a full-scale setting would have been impossible in a context that is already long.
The recordings date from 1994 and 1995, and it is hard to compliment them enthusiastically enough. The stakes were high for the technical personnel, because the performances are likewise beyond praise, so that anything less than excellence in the sound would have seemed like failure. In describing these accounts I prefer to consider performance and recorded sound as one single experience and not two. The music is not all slow by any means, but it is likely to be the slow music that creates the strongest impression. Slow usually means quiet as well, and there are many long-drawn-out cadences, some but not all Amin's, that are downright miraculous for beauty, control and depth of feeling. Where volume and forcefulness are required the artists are effortlessly up to that too, and you will find such a full-blooded effect delivered impressively at, say, item number 7 in the Vespers. However I can think of no respect in which I want to criticise the way things are done. Soprano pitch never goes very high, I suppose, but for what it may be worth I found the tone always agreeable without a hint of edge or steeliness. Balance among the voices always seems perfect, the soloists are agreeable to listen to, but above all I have been given one thing I particularly yearned for, namely a fine black-velvet basso-profundo `Volga-boatman' bass timbre. It all takes place in a superbly calculated acoustic too, resonant in a suitably ecclesiastical way without compromising distinctness in the words or introducing unwanted echoes.
The artists here are Russian (or at least Russian-based) of course, and I can't imagine that did any harm. However I do not propose to stray into ethnic assessments beyond saying that to me they sound born to perform this music, my own ideas of the matter being no doubt the kind of western stereotypes that I referred to above. There is a brief liner note attributed only to Decca, and for once I would have liked rather more of it because it is tantalisingly suggestive of having genuine thought put into it. I have never visited Russia and I have no experience of Orthodox rites, but after all these years I like to think I must be able to recognise good music well performed when I hear it, and that is what I think I am hearing, to a quite exceptional degree, in this set.