Holst Singers Negotiate Rachmaninov Vespers with Skill and Fervour

Rachmaninov: Holst Singers, Stephen Layton (conductor). Merton College Chapel, Oxford 20.2.16

Rachmaninov: All-Night Vespers, Op. 37

With his All-Night Vigil or Vespers setting (1915) Rachmaninov tapped so deeply and cogently into the tradition of Russian Orthodox music that it is difficult, at first hearing perhaps, to comprehend that this is the same composer responsible for the Paganini Variations, the piano concertos, symphonies, and the sizeable output of late Romantic piano music. But perhaps his rich interweaving of certain Orthodox chants within a lavish multi-layered choral texture is not so far removed from the opulent orchestral sonorities he evoked in works such as the Symphony No. 2 and the Isle of the Dead, or the way in which he drew upon Paganini’s Caprice in the Variations, or the Dies Irae chant in that and a number of other compositions.

Stephen Layton and the Holst Singers skilfully negotiated and realised the almost symphonic progression of the fifteen settings which comprise the Vespers, sustaining tension and fervour within each movement and across the series as a whole. This was due to the masterful way in which the Layton elicited not an undifferentiated, monolithic block of sound from the choir, but a variegated orchestral texture from them, with different ranks and groupings of voices shifting into and out of focus. The second movement, ‘Bagoslovi, dushe moya, Gospoda’ (‘Bless the Lord, O my soul’) was exemplary in this respect, where the more dynamic interplay between the vulnerable-sounding higher voices and the darker-coloured basses took place over the more long-breathed and non-verbalised syllables of the harmonic foundation provided by the intermediate voices. Another notable example of the Holst Singers’ orchestral capacities was evidenced in ‘Blagosloven yesi, Gospodi’ (‘Blessed art Thou, O Lord’) where the fluid succession of episodes was almost rhapsodic. With such attention to timbre, texture, and momentum there was no danger of the music ever grinding to a halt or losing interest.

Taken out of its liturgical context it is difficult, perhaps, to trace a sense of development or purpose in the sequence of religious texts set. But at the musical level this proved no bar to Layton’s interpretation since he and the choir created the semblance of a drama by the way in which movements were contrasted from each other, or climaxes planned in stages, so that groups of movements each made sense as a sub-section of the whole work. After an arresting start on the very opening chords, the music drew back for the first few numbers. The Alleluias of the famous ‘Blazhen muzh’ (‘Blessed is the man’) cumulatively built up an atmosphere of fervent devotion, and that joy was further sustained towards the first climax of the sequence in the blazing force of sound at the peak of the sixth movement, ‘Bogoroditse Devo’ (‘Rejoice, O Virgin Theotokos’). The only criticism that might be levelled is that, incandescent though the quality of the sound was, the articulation of such climaxes was just slightly too neat and controlled rather than mystically ecstatic, for example in the series of acclamations in ‘Voskreseniye Hristovo videvshe’ (‘Having beheld the resurrection of Christ’). The continuity of any spiritual or emotional atmosphere was also broken up by the prompting of a note from a tuning organ at the beginning of virtually every movement. It is surprising was necessary given the remarkable standards of this choir.

The two soloists called for by Rachmaninov do not have an extended part – they are really more cantors at certain points – but they provided a vivid lead on the occasions they are brought to the fore. James Preston sang with a reedy sort of vibrato which sounded distinctly oriental and unearthly, and authentic to the music. Fiona Challacombe was less distinctive to begin with, but she did cultivate a deeper, mellower hue later on, like a sonic incense enfolding the wider choral texture.

At fifty minutes or so, this was a brief concert, but it is a testament to the conviction (and stamina) of the Holst Singers’ performance that its breadth and depth required no filling out with any other music, or any interval.

Curtis Rogers

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