Tenebrae conjure unique atmosphere with Rachmaninov Vespers at St. Martin-in-the-Fields

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rachmaninov: Tenebrae / Nigel Short (conductor) St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, 26.1.2023. (JR)

A previous Tenebrae concert

Rachmaninov Vespers

Sergei Rachmaninov, deeply religious, considered his Vespers and The Bells his favourite works. He asked for the fifth movement of Vespers to be sung at his funeral. (Only the first six movements of the work are technically vespers, and its proper name should be All-Night Vigil.) His Vespers were written in the depths of the First World War, grounded in ancient Russian Orthodox chants, yet bearing all Rachmaninov’s trademark lushness and Romanticism, complex in its use of harmony. It has been praised as the composer’s finest achievement and the greatest musical achievement of the Russian Orthodox Church.  Every performance should generate an unrepeatable atmosphere and this performance, by celebrated English a cappella chamber choir Tenebrae in the beautiful church of St Martin-in-the-Fields, did just that. It is not, however, a work for everyday listening.

Just a few days into the Orthodox new year, this midwinter evening concert brought music and singing which glowed in the dark. The piece started from the very rear of the church, the choir singing at first invisibly, and then proceeding very slowly down the central aisle to take their places before a bank of magical candles. The work is written for a four-part choir, however in many of the fifteen parts there is three-, five-, six- and eight-part harmony: at one point even eleven parts. The first movement requires a very deep bass, easily found in Russia, less so in Britain. The role was taken by Owain Park, as dark a bass as one could hope for. His profound incantation sounded almost amplified as it echoed around the church to imposing effect. The end of the fifth movement is notorious for its descending scale which culminates in a low B-flat; achieved I suspect only by some.

In the later movements, one was struck by the precision and transparency of the singing. Tenebrae on this performance consisted of 9 sopranos, 6 altos, 6 tenors and 6 basses, all of the highest soloist quality. Sopranos were fresh and angelic in voice with plenty of stamina for the final note of each movement.  When the choir was called upon for volume (as in the tenth movement) there was no lack of power. The two Alleluia choruses (numbers 3 and 8) brought a welcome joyful aspect to the dark work. Nigel Short kept the piece moving at a fairly brisk pace throughout.

Short and Tenebrae recorded the work about twenty years ago, to considerable acclaim, not long after the founding of Tenebrae in 2001. I learned after the performance that only about half the current choir knew the work, and there had only been two rehearsals, a remarkable feat of professionalism. The other soloists were soprano Victoria Meteyard, New Zealand tenor Nicholas Madden and mezzo Martha McLorinan, all with superb contributions. McLorinan in particular entered into the spirit of the work, her lovely, warm voice colouring the second movement with rich harmonies.

That brings me to the language of the Vespers. The text is written not in Russian, but in Russian Church Slavic (or Slavonic) which is a semi-artificial construct full of archaic words and grammatical forms which are no longer used in modern Russian. It is said to be now closer to modern Bulgarian. If I have a quibble, it is that Tenebrae did not wholly manage to be guttural enough to make the text sound quasi-Russian – just listen to any of the recordings by Russian or Latvian choirs.  Nicholas Madden in particular sounded rather English; a Russian tenor would have sounded more constricted.

The choir finished the work halfway through the last movement and then proceeded out of the church intoning the last part. It was a memorable and moving experience and wholly deserving of the warm reception it received.

John Rhodes

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