Ex Cathedra’s Magnificent Rachmaninov Resonates in Cheltenham

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rachmaninov:  Ex Cathedra, Jeffrey Skidmore (conductor) Cheltenham College Chapel, 11.7.2012 (JQ)

Rachmaninov: All-Night Vigil, Op. 37

Rachmaninov wrote his All-Night Vigil in 1915 so this performance fitted neatly into one of the themes of this year’s festival: ‘Time Capsule 1914-18’.

It’s nearly a year since I reviewed a very fine performance by Ex Cathedra of Rachmaninov’s choral masterpiece. On that occasion the choral movements were interspersed, most effectively, with selections from the composer’s piano Preludes, played by Stephen Osborne. For this Cheltenham Festival performance we heard the choral music alone.

There was another important difference: the 2011 performance I heard was in the excellent but definitely secular surroundings of Birmingham’s Symphony Hall but on this occasion we were in a smaller and definitely non-secular space; the Chapel of Cheltenham College. Actually, though the chapel is small by comparison with Symphony Hall it’s still quite a substantial building, a Victorian Gothic edifice capable of seating several hundred people. It was well filled for this concert and, with the lights deliberately kept low, a rather special ambience was generated when this performance began as dusk began to fall.

I’ll cut to the chase. This was a magnificent performance. My seat was fairly near the front. This meant that the climaxes, delivered with full-throated intensity, were overwhelming – and occasionally I wished I could also experience those passages from further back in the chapel to savour the sound as it echoed round. However, it was thrilling to hear the loud passages with such immediacy and had I sat further away from the choir I would have sacrificed the opportunity of seeing and hearing at close quarters the way in which the quieter music was delivered with remarkable attention to detail.

After the opening incantation Ex Cathedra set their stall out with some really strong singing in the opening movement, ‘Come let us worship.’ (For ease of reference I’ll refer to the movements by their English titles but the performance was, of course, given in Russian. So far as I could judge – it’s a long time since my faltering attempts to learn the language at school – the Russian pronunciation was very good.) In this first section the choral sound was splendid; full-bodied, intense and very responsive to dynamics. All these traits were to be hallmarks of the entire performance as it unfolded.

In the second movement, ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul’, I enjoyed very much Lucy Ballard’s warm and expressive alto solo; her solo line was supported on a soft, rich carpet of choral sound. Later in the work there are several important tenor solos, notably ‘Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant’, the fifth movement. These were in the safe hands of Jeremy Budd. He may be an English tenor but his timbre for these solos was convincingly authentic. I loved the way he sang the long, expressive lines of the fifth movement with fervent, plangent tone. Towards the end of that movement the choir delivered a climax of breath-taking intensity, the whole choir underpinned by a rock-solid bass section whose members then proceeded to descend firmly and securely to the famous bottom B flat at the close.

Probably the most famous section in the work is the sixth movement, ‘Bogoroditse devo, raduisya’ (‘Rejoice, O Virgin’), which is often sung outside the context of the full All-Night Vigil. This is a rapt, devotional setting, rising to a short, fervent climax. I can only say that this evening’s performance was as good as any I’ve ever heard.

The eighth movement, ‘Praise the name of the Lord’, was vibrant and joyful. In a very fine account of the eleventh movement, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord’ I especially admired the delicacy with which the refrain “More honourable than the Cherubim” was sung each time it appeared. Elsewhere in that setting the more dramatic sections were equally well realised. The movement, ’To Thee, the victorious Leader’ was sung exultantly and with great energy, bringing the work to a thrilling conclusion.

I’ve heard several live performances of this great work but this was as exciting an account of it as I can remember.  The singing was consistently precise in every respect and the rhythms were articulated crisply and clearly. The choir was well balanced so that every part registered, even in Rachmaninov’s most sumptuously scored passages. Not only was there superb responsiveness to dynamics but also the quality of tone was hugely impressive; even the most intense climaxes were delivered without any sacrifice of tonal quality. And at all times – and at every dynamic level – there was wonderful focus in the choir’s sound. It’s a hugely demanding score to sing, not least because the choir is required to sing complex, unaccompanied music for over an hour but the concentration never wavered. Clearly, the singers had been prepared scrupulously by Jeffrey Skidmore who conducted with manifest attention to detail and inspired his singers to put across this visionary score with fervour and finesse.

I doubt anyone fortunate enough to have been in the audience for this remarkable performance will forget it in a hurry.


John Quinn