Greater Boston has had in recent years a fair number of opportunities to hear what was once a choral rarity outside Russia, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil, op. 37, also known as Vespers. Most recently the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum, directed by Andrew Clark, gave a highly successful performance at Sanders Theatre on February 18th, surmounting this masterpiece’s great linguistic and musical challenges while making a deeply moving musical statement. I wondered in advance if the youth of university-age singers would be a double-edged sword here: they would very likely have the stamina to avoid vocal fatigue in the epic sections (movements nine through twelve) that come later in the fifteen-movement a cappella piece; on the other hand it seemed possible that their still-developing voices might lack the richness of color characteristic of the best performances, particularly the basses who are routinely asked to sing low Cs and B-flats and provide a bedrock foundation for the rest of the ensemble. I needn’t have worried. The judicious hiring of four professional basses gave the section solidity seldom heard outside of Russian choruses, and all the sections had a near-ideal balance of transparency and warmth. Additionally, the mezzo soprano and tenor soloists were of very high caliber and made beautiful contributions to a most memorable choral experience. On this evening, one didn’t necessarily have to be of Russian Orthodox faith to be warmed and comforted by this music.
After an opening monodic chant, the chorus’s very first chord established right away many of the virtues of this performance: the balance and blend were impeccable, the basses’ low C solid as granite, and there was just enough vibrato to lend warmth but not enough to obscure the transparency of the harmony. The plethora of crescendi/diminuendi (“hairpins”) were scrupulously observed by Clark and executed with rare unanimity by the chorus.
The second movement is essentially an alto solo with the chorus providing a beautiful backdrop. Mezzo Stephanie Kacoyanis gave a lovely and spiritually rich account of this movement which repeatedly blesses the Lord for the marvels of creation. The chorus provided a subtly woven, enchanting tapestry linking the terrestrial (the lower voices who accompany the soloist) and the celestial (the upper voices that alternate with her).
Another highlight —and there were many to choose from — was the fifth and possibly best-known movement, “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace.” This particularly intimate section is characterized by a gently rocking rhythmic motif, in lullaby fashion, permeating the choral accompaniment over which tenor Stefan Reed spun golden lines of legato melody. In the middle the soloist drops out and the chant melody passes through every section of the chorus successively while the music builds inexorably to a climax. Even in the mounting power and excitement, each individual entrance came through clearly. After a final atmospheric recapitulation from Reed came the famous choral descending natural minor scale to a B flat below the staff for the second basses. The three bare-octave B flats at the end induced shivers, especially thanks to the great resonance of the low basses.
As a supplement to the Vigil (and perhaps to allow the chorus a couple of brief rests), we were also offered some Rachmaninoff from other genres: two solo songs after movement 6 and the Élégie for solo piano after movement 11. Ms. Kacoyanis and pianist Melanie Rucinski ’15 (who also sang soprano in the Vigil) performed “Yesterday We Met” and “Everything is Passing”, both from the composer’s op. 26. (Note to program compilers: as art song is intended to be an equal partnership of poetry and music, the text author should always be listed as well as the composer.) Both were fine examples of the uniquely Slavic angst of which Rachmaninoff was a past master, and Kacoyanis rendered them vividly. In the first song Rucinski began somewhat timidly but became more expansive as the song progressed, while the second song was truly an equal collaboration. Jeremy Yang ’12 (a tenor in the Vigil) played the Élégie, op. 3 No. 1, affectingly. This early piece is reminiscent of Chopin but already tinged with echt Rachmaninoff colors, which just occasionally turned quasi-Impressionist due to a bit too much pedal.
The largest of the four “epic” movements, the twelfth (“The Great Doxology”), was a sterling example of Clark’s and the Collegium’s comprehensive attention to detail, heard throughout the whole Vigil, which rendered such rich rewards. There were telling differentiations of legato, tenuto, and staccato articulations, of major and minor tonalities, and of duple against triple rhythms. As always the dynamic “hairpins”, large and small, seemed as natural as breathing, but in fact this is only accomplished with careful consideration and, in the extended ones, pacing: the art that conceals art. And as in all movements, the chant melody always emerged clearly in whichever voice-part it occurred, without seeming unduly “spotlit.”
In a concert performance (perhaps not in a liturgy), the thrilling and triumphant last movement can pose an aesthetic quandary for some who feel that, in the context of this monumental work, the finale seems over almost before it’s begun. It has the fastest tempo marking in the Vigil (Allegro con brio) and requires only a little more than a minute to sing. In his landmark recording, Robert Shaw’s solution was to repeat roughly half the movement and do a very substantial ritenuto at the (repeated) ending. Clark repeated nothing but anticipated the ritenuto by four measures which surely gave it a monumental feel, though it felt slightly odd after the surging vitality of the rest of the movement. Nonetheless, the sheer joy and excitement of the singing swept all such quibbles away.
As a choral singer who performed this wondrous work a year ago, I have a firsthand knowledge of the great demands it makes on all concerned. Outside of Russian Orthodox tradition, I doubt there is anything comparable to a fifteen-movement a cappella choral work lasting over an hour. For Western choirs, simply staying on pitch over this vast expanse is a stern test, to say nothing of pronouncing a text in Church Slavonic. The Collegium’s intonation may not have been perfect, but it came impressively close. I salute as well the professional basses, Glenn Miller, Cameron Beauchamp, Caleb Williams, and Darrick Yee, who did not have solos but certainly made a special contribution to this triumph. I hope we may look forward to further exploration of the Russian repertoire by the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum and Andrew Clark.