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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.
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on 9 January 2012
The voices here almost transcend reality. Whether you have Faith or not, this choir produce sounds that reach deep inside you. It's a remarkable achievement by both Rachmaninoff and the voices of the St Petersburg Chamber Choir.
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on 12 July 2014
Being a total atheist, I neverless find this music so beautiful it fills me with hope, wonder and it gives me peace. Haven' t a clue what they are saying but the choir sublime. Absolutely wonderful.
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on 16 February 2011
This is a recording of Rachmaninov's haunting Vespers which I would recommend to anyone who enjoys such works. I had already bought this recording for myself, and had ordered a second copy to send to a friend who was entranced by it and has discovered the simple beauty of such restful music.
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on 17 January 2015
Just what I wanted and arrived quickly.
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on 5 April 2013
I have played this repeatedly over the past few weeks, which is a good sign. It s also good value.
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on 13 January 2015
Found it hard going and it sounded like it was recorded from another room in the church. Hard work to enjoy fully.
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on 30 March 2015
Vibrato abound in this record! Sometimes this technique is so overwhelmingly used that the notes sung sound out of pitch. Also, some of the singers often glide from note to note, making it almost indiscernible which note they are supposed to sing. On top of that, the recording was made far from the choir. Therefore we get a lot of church acoustics, which draws the life out of the singing. It sounds as if we sit in the back of the church! To be honest, I find this recording almost unlistenable. To me it's very strange that it gets so much praise here on Amazon. As if we were all listening to different records... But I much prefer Hillier's version of the vespers, even though I believe he never recorded them all. I would advise anyone interested in these works to thoroughly check some samples first.
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on 5 July 2015
Must admit that I have heard better on Utube
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