United Kingdom 2017 BBC Proms 38 – Rachmaninov: Latvian Radio Choir, Sigvards Klava (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 13.8.2017. (RBa)
Rachmaninov – All-Night Vigil (Vespers)
This was the second of this Sunday evening’s two Rachmaninov concerts. It was held, as usual, in the Royal Albert Hall which is currently undergoing extensive external renovation. The concert, which began at 9:45 pm., was one of the season’s Late Night Proms.
A single 65-minute item was featured. I had for years been calling the work we were to hear Vespers. That was the name on the sleeve of the LP that was my introduction to the piece—a recording from 1965 by a crack USSR State choir conducted by Alexander Sveshnikov. The correct name for this piece, I now learn rather late in the day, is All-Night Vigil. This a cappella work was sung by a Latvian choir who some years ago recorded the work for Ondine.
It is a measure of this 1915 work’s standing that the hall was almost as full as it had been for the orchestral concert given the same day at 6 pm. The earlier concert started with the same choir singing two pieces of Russian Orthodox chant. Each of them led, without an intake of breath, into an orchestral work. Now the choir, conducted by understated Sigvards Klava, were on the podium from the outset, not having to process through the Prommers or project from on high in “The Gods”. The singers were arranged in two shallow semi-circle ranks, women at the front and men on a slightly raised dais just behind the women. They were rather dwarfed on the hall’s vast orchestral stage.
The choir comprises 12 women and 12 men, so this is not a huge group. It did not produce a huge sound, even at full tilt. Deprived of the earlier “theatrical” and spatial effects (processional and distancing), the choir were thrown back on its own estimable resources. Singing in Russian, the choir proved a subtly refined and pliant vocal body. The Latvian basses produced a fine deeply ground hum, quite distinct from their floor-board shaking de profundis brethren in Sveshnikov’s classic recording. Then again the whole event spoke of skilled and minutely controlled craft. Naturally there was fervour but this music is not about jagged extremes.
The choir has a fully resolved and merged tone. Individual voices do not ring out of the generality. The writing defies monotony with its use of melody, micrometer adjustments of dynamic, and speed and variety among and between the male and female groups. The fifteen sections of this work of quiet confidence were divided in this performance by significant pauses, although at least once the silence was very brief. Standing out were the repeated and subtly varied ecstatic alleluias in Blazhen muzh (Blessed is the man) (3), the almost Delian, cool but strangely virile, moonlight of Svete tikhly (Serene light—adroitly named) (4) and Dnes spaseniye miru bist (On this day) (13), the glowing passion and anguish of Bogoroditse Devo (Rejoice, O Virgin mother of God) (6), and the dancing vigour, stamped with religious ecstasy, of Slava v vyshnikh Bogu (Glory to God in the highest) (7), an aspect that returns in the final segment Vzbrannoy voyvode (Chosen leader) (15). Rachmaninov very frankly anticipates the finale of the Symphonic Dances, lying a quarter century in the future, in Khvalite imya Gospodi (Praise ye the name) (8).
Allowing for the necessary evil of advertising, the BBC programme books for the Proms set the gold standard in design and content: lots of context and a range of perspectives on the music as well as Prom history. I particularly enjoy Tom Service’s wild, woolly and allusively free-wheeling columns alongside the main commentary from recognised authorities. In the case of the All-Night Vigil all the words were given in both transliterated Russian, as sung, as well as parallel translation. It all helps to complete, rather than hem in, the musical experience.