Rachmaninov’s Vespers richly resound with Inspirare and Mark Stamper at St.Mary of the Angels

RACHMANINOV – All Night Vigil (Vespers)

Maaike Christie-Beekmann (alto soloist)
Chris McRae (tenor/priest)
Ben Kubiak (bass/deacon)

Lisa Harper-Brown (vocal and language coach)

Mark Stamper (director)

St.Mary of the Angels Church
Boulcott St., Wellington

Saturday, 7th April

Rachmaninov’s somewhat cumbersome title for this work (The Most Important Hymns of the “All Night Vigil”) though literally accurate, epitomises the composer’s characteristic self-effacing attitude to all of his musical undertakings. Fortunately for its deserved popularity, the piece has come to be commonly known as the “Vespers”, pure and simple (in the manner of Monteverdi’s similarly-titled work), however incorrect as a description – in fact Rachmaninov’s work contains settings of hymns from both Vespers and Matins in the Russian Orthodox Divine Service for the Feast of the Resurrection.

Matters of nomenclature apart (and far more importantly), this work provides a listening experience which touches on a number of fronts – aesthetic, visceral, emotional and devotional are words which come instantly to mind – and whose qualities leave little room or option for anything other than through-and-through involvement, especially in a live performance of this quality. I couldn’t help thinking of a similar kind of transportation of delight and wonderment I’d experienced in this same church with the aforementioned “Vespers” of Monteverdi, when performed in 2010 by home-grown forces, authentic instruments and all! Here, my feeling were replicated by a wondrous evocation of devotional intensity from a set of forces recreating a vastly different time and place, if with similarly mesmerising spiritual and emotional force.

For those who think of Rachmaninov’s music as consisting almost wholly of late-romantic throwback gestures belonging to and lamenting the passing of a bygone era, this work would come as a something of a surprise, indicating the extent of the composer’s intrinsic feeling for far older traditions than those of the nineteenth century. In fact the composer’s musical identification with the tradition gives a clue to the individuality of his work as a whole, its aspect of “continuous melody”, the sinuous nature of his themes, and their fervour and volatility. All of these characteristics can be found here interwoven with the actual traditional chant melodies used by the composer in the work, but in a way that results in a seamless exchange between tradition and originality.

The work was written at a time when sacred choral music was enjoying something of a renaissance in Russia – in fact a “New Russian School” of choral composers, including Kastalsky, Gretchaninoff and Chesnokov, inspired by the enthusiasm of the pedagogue and musicologist Stepan Smolensky, had created a new native style of orthodox church-inspired music. The latter had also been Rachmaninov’s tutor at the Moscow Conservatory, and was responsible for introducing him to the beauties of ancient Russian liturgical chant, which inspired the composer to dedicate his Vespers to the memory of Smolensky after completing the work in 1915.

Nine of the fifteen movements in the work are based on actual chant melodies, Rachmaninov drawing from three ancient chant traditions – “Znammemy” (the oldest form), Kiev School and Greek School. For the remaining six, the composer created what he called “conscious counterfeits”, original material based on the style of the existing chants. The text is in “Church Slavonic”, which is the Orthodox Church’s liturgical language. Incredibly the work was finished in the space of two weeks, and performed in 1915 as a benefit concert for war relief. According to my sources, it was performed on a number of further occasions that year, due to its initial success.

Having not heard the work “live” previously, I had recourse to recordings to prepare for this concert, principally to one I’d owned for a number of years, and generally regarded as a “classic” – this was the 1965 Melodiya recording featuring the USSR State Academic Russian Choir directed by Alexander Sveshnikov.  I wondered whether playing my LP repeatedly by way of familiarising myself with the work was going to do my reaction to Wellington’s Inspirare Choir any favours, especially as the Russian recorded performance had several instantly impressive qualities – a marked fervour of utterance expressed by way of an incredible dynamic range and a certain direct “raw” vocal quality which sounded like no other choir I’d heard, along with the deepest and richest sonority I could have imagined, thanks to those incredible Russian bass voices!

Rachmaninov himself made particular reference to these bass sonorities, replying to concerns expressed by the work’s first conductor, Nikolai Danilin, who reportedly told the composer that “such (bass) voices were rare as asparagus at Christmas” – to which Rachmaninov replied that he knew the voices of his countrymen, and that such basses could be found. This exchange was prompted by the fifth of the composer’s settings, one frequently occurring in European church music and known as “Nunc Dimittis”, and here concluding with a slow downward scale finishing on a low pianissimo B-flat. In fact the Inspirare basses at St.Mary’s on Saturday evening gave a creditable account of themselves in this passage, reaching the cavernous depths asked for by the composer, and holding onto their tones tenaciously, if without quite the resonance commanded by my recording’s Russian basses.

For the rest, I thought the performance by the Inspirare choir and the three solo singers truly magnificent, expressing the work’s breadth and depth with a beauty and solidarity of tone that itself paid ample tribute to the quality of the voices involved and the all-embracing direction of Mark Stamper. This was a performance which gave due attention to the ritualistic quality and context of the settings, using two solo voices in turn (deacon and priest) to begin the sequence, and tubular bells to introduce almost every one of the individual movements. And we in the audience were made to feel we shared the same similarly-lit spaces as the voices, which further enhanced the capacities of the performance to draw us into the music.

Besides the sonorous bass voice of Ben Kubiak as the deacon, and  the wondrously plangent tones of tenor Chris McRae, both of whom made various contributions at other places during the work, alto Maaike Christie-Beekman brought to her solos in “Blagoslovi, dushe moya, Gospoda” (Bless the Lord, O My Soul) unwavering, worshipful and warmly-projected tones, confidently mediating the exchanges between the beautiful, wind-blown voices of the women and the deep, almost oceanic undulations from the men.

As for the choir itself, from the very first surge of fervent impulse immediately after the beautifully floated opening “Amin”, with “Priidite Poklonimsya tsarevi nashemu Bogu” (Come, let us worship God, our King), we were drawn into a sense of worshipful communion with the voices, the ebb and flow of their tones gorgeously expressed and finely controlled by Mark Stamper. In the third hymn “Blazhen Muzh” (Blessed in the Man), I loved the growing intensities of the repeated trio of Alleluias, and the radiance of “Slava Otsu I Synu I Svyatomu Dukhu” (Glory to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit) burst out most tellingly at the piece’s climax.

We heard the choir’s basses to telling effect in “Svete tikhyi” (Gladsome Radiance), the hymn introduced by Ben Kubiak’s bass solo, and beginning with high tenor voices, followed by the women, a lovely “layered” effect. The basses then initiated a stunningly low organ-pedal-like note, which then rose to mingle with the other voices  as the solo tenor burst forth fervently with “Poyem Otsa, Syna, I Svyatago Dukha” (We praise the Father, Son and Holy Spirit), Chris McRae’s vibrant timbres having to my ears a touch of authenticity in the context of this work. And how resonantly the choir’s voices held the slowly-devolving lines of the final “Tem zhe mir Tya slavit” (Hence the world glorifies Thee), with the basses making every ounce of breath tell.

Rachmaninov wanted the “Nunc Dimittis” from this work (No.5 – “Nyne Otpushchayeshi”) sung at his own funeral, professing it to be his favourite number from the work. After the tubular bells preluded the hymn, the women’s voices setting up a rocking motion, over which the tenor sang his plaintive melody, in places impassionedly, and to profoundly engaging effect. The basses then began a kind of canonic sequence at “Yezhe yesi utogoval” (Thou hast prepared) which gradually lit up all sections of the choir. After this, the sopranos then beautifully sounded an exposed “Svyet vodtkroveniye” (A light to shine upon…”) before returning, with the rest of the voices, to the rocking motion, and accompanying the tenor throughout his final sequence, the basses making their famous descent to a low B-flat, some actually completing the journey! In experiencing a performance such as this one could hear why Rachmaninov prized the work so much – most sadly his wish to have the work performed at his funeral was unable to be realised.

Sometimes separately performed, the “Ave Maria” (“Bogoroditse Devo, raduisya”) was here floated beautifully into being, the women’s voices effortlessly orbiting in different contrapuntal directions before the rest of the choir opened the choral floodgates and saturated the church with sound. A joyful bell phrase introduced “Slava v vysnikh Bogu” (Glory Be to God), the sopranos decorating the mezzo’s melody with bell-like entries of their own, the sounds gathering into a kind of cascade which dissolved as quickly as it formed, leaving rapt, prayer-like utterances mingling with the ensuing silences.

In the following “Khvalite imya Gospodne” (Praise the Name of the Lord”) I enjoyed the impression of listening to the voices of the Cherubim and Seraphim on high, as below, on earth, the faithful (the remainder of the choir) lift up their hearts with strong, definite statements, punctuating their utterances with Alleluias, the whole concluded by a peaceful, beautifully-rounded and long-breathed cadence. Rather more complex and narrative a structure was “Blagosloven yesi, Gospodi” (Blessed be the Lord), the text an annotated account of Mary Magdalene (unnamed) discovering Jesus’ tomb opened and inhabited by an angel on the first Easter Sunday morning, the music free and spontaneous-sounding, and the performance of both the tenor soloist and the choir filled with voiced wonderment and joy.

“Voskreseniye Khristovo videvshe” (Hymn of the Resurrection) was imbued with a sense of fresh hope, alternated with wonderment and fierce exultation, the performance giving us an abundance of varied intensities, the voices for the most part energetic and thrusting, while in places thoughtful and tremulous. Even more compelling was the following “Velichit dusha moya Gospoda” (Magnificat), which was a miracle of light-and-shade in its performance – the lower voices began the famous prayer  slowly and meditatively, after which the soprano voices here beautifully lifted their tones to the skies describing the “Cherubim and Seraphim-like exultations” with dance-like figurations, enchanting in their effect. Throughout the hymn, these angelic voices alternated with more earth-bound tones, heaven thus seeming to bestow approval to mankind through the Virgin’s prayer – the sequence ended with heavenly voices joining those on earth in quiet, worshipful rapture.

How rich and varied was the “Slavoslovive velikoye” (Gloria in Excelsis) here, with the lower women’s voices beginning the chanting and the soprano voices floating in over the top. The men’s voices continued the prayer at “Sedyai odesnuyu Otsa” (Thou who sits at the right hand of the Father), before the women’s voices took up the chant again after the “Amen”, reaching a lovely point of hiatus at “Budi, Gospodi, milost Tvoya na nas” (Let Thy mercy, O Lord, be upon us), and becoming almost recitative-like over the mesmerising repetitions of “Svyatyi” (Holy), which continued to the end.

Three short hymns brought the work to a close, the first an intense, richly-wrought outpouring, “Dnes spasenye miru” (The Day of Salvation), followed by a questioning bell sequence that seemed to require an answer from the voices! This came with “Voskres iz groba” (Thou didst rise), a serene outpouring of faith and confidence, the singing like a great exhalation of breath, truly depicting the text’s affirming statement “Thou hast given peace to the Universe”, a world drawn by the sopranos’ soaring, steadily-held line and the basses’ deep, rock-bottom tones. Finally,  heralded by an imposing extended bass solo from Ben Kubiak, the women’s voices appropriately took the lead for “Vzbrannoy Voyevode”  (O victorious leader), a Hymn to the Mother of God, the mezzo lines rich and energetic, and the sopranos gleaming, as throughout, richly upholstered by the lower voices, and concluding the whole work with a joyous outpouring of mellifluous tones and tingling energy.

Very, very great credit to all concerned with the venture, to Mark Stamper and his Inspirare singers and cohorts – what a work, and what a performance!


One thought on “Rachmaninov’s Vespers richly resound with Inspirare and Mark Stamper at St.Mary of the Angels

  1. Vivienne Graham says:

    I went along to this without knowledge of what I would hear. I did not listen to utube as I wanted to experience this performance. The expertise of the choir held me right to the end of the 70 minute performance. A work of art, dedication and learning under this extremely talented musical director Mark Stamper. Thank you Inspirare for another magical performance in the wonderful setting of St Mary’s of The Angels church.

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