IN: Reviews

Skylark Vigilant in Rachmaninoff

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In the last of four performances (over what must have been four grueling days) — each at a different location — Skylark Vocal Ensemble gave Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil (also known as Vespers) on Sunday at St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church, Harvard Square. See BMInt review from earlier performance HERE.

Though St. Paul’s bears little physical resemblance to a Russian Orthodox house of worship, it was redolent of incense and offered a similarly reverberant acoustic as well as its own iconography to lend a greater sense of authenticity than a concert hall would have done. For this special occasion Skylark augmented its complement with three experienced and renowned oktavists (bassi profondi in the Russian style), Eric Alatorre, Glenn Miller, and Adrian Peacock. These men alternated singing the introductory chant to a number of movements. Whether such intonations are authentic Russian Orthodox performance practice, I could not say, but I daresay the audience considered this less important than the enhanced atmosphere. We may not have imagined ourselves in Tsarist Russia, but it was often easy nonetheless to feel transported to another time and place.

Despite my having sung this work in the same venue as one of over 100 singers, I was confident that the room’s sonic properties would allow Skylark’s 25 choral artists to fill it without strain, though I confess to wondering if some of the more luxurious textures (expanding to as many as 11 voices) might seem more austere than this arch-Romantic music should ideally sound. The opening movement (“Come, let us worship God, our King”) quickly laid such concerns to rest. The first pair of phrases displayed a very wide but well-controlled dynamic range, and the movement as a whole established the ensemble’s ability to swell and diminish quickly or over multiple measures at will. This largely vigorous summons to worship was both compelling and beguiling.

The more relaxed “Bless the Lord, O my soul” showcases the work’s only alto solo, which is appropriately extensive. The solo is best suited to a resonant (dare I say “plummy”?) contralto though the composer very considerately has the choral sopranos and altos sing only in alternation with her. But mezzo-soprano Luthien Brackett acquitted herself honorably, expertly navigating some lung-stretchingly long phrases but also matching the accompanying chorus’s expressive rise and fall. When the women of the chorus entered, their tone was gentle, ethereal, almost without vibrato, and sweetly tuned.

Guard and the singers delineated Rachmaninoff’s musical structuring of “Blessed Is the Man”: until near the end, every line of text (mostly an alto-alto-tenor trio) is punctuated with a group of Alleluias (full SATB and dividing parts thereof). While the text remains subdued and reflective, each Alleluia refrain is subtly more powerful than the previous one until the performers reach a satisfying climax (the Gloria Patri), fortissimo and in accelerated tempo. Providing symmetry, each successive “Alleluia” group thereafter is slightly reduced from the previous one; the singers’ carefully judged nuance was equally to be savored.

“Gladsome Light”, based on a Kievan chant intoned by Peacock, persuaded with its deft handling of imitative counterpoint and Jonas Budris’s brief but telling first tenor solo, and the highly flexible dynamics of its last phrase.

In the famous “Lord, now let Your servant depart in peace” (Nunc dimittis) Guard’s tempo was a shade faster than Rachmaninoff’s specified Adagio, which is more ideally peaceful, but the characteristic soothing rocking figure in the chorus still cast a spell, and Budris’s shining solo line served to portray the text’s allusion to “a light revealed to the Gentiles.” Especially striking was the moment when the tenor’s phrase yielded gracefully to the bass section’s continuation of it, marking the start of a build-up to a magnificent choral climax. The wistful concluding section culminated in the iconic descending bass scale to a positively Stygian low B flat. Many in the audience were perceptibly moved, and it is worth noting that Rachmaninoff had wished this movement to be sung at his funeral, though this proved impracticable when the time came.

The serene sweetness and relatively simple texture of “Rejoice, O virgin mother of God” (Ave Maria) refreshed the palate though it did rise to its own great peak at “for you have borne the Savior of our souls.” The extended final descrescendo was again beautifully judged and executed.

“The Six Psalms” (Glory be to God) begins with similar simplicity, but soon enough the texture expands opulently into a stirring 11-voice climax on repetitions of “glory.” The artists’ impeccable tuning and consummate dynamic control greatly impressed here as well as in the recovered simplicity of the final measures.

The brisk tempo taken in “Praise the name of the Lord” served the text well but the fast-changing harmonies less well in the plush acoustics of St. Paul’s; I found myself wishing I could have heard Skylark’s performances in the other three venues for comparison here. Eighth-note motion didn’t always register as such and 16ths hardly at all. Yet one could not deny that the full-blooded and passionate singing swept the listener along in rousing fashion.

The ninth movement, “Blessed are You, Lord, teach me Your statutes” is one of two extra-large-scale movements (the twelfth being the other) and is marked by repetitions of the titular text and its music alternating with other words and music. The musicians clearly marked contrasts between the two with articulation and tempo, the refrain being somewhat lively and quasi-marcato while the other sections were more moderate and featured silken legato. The movement is capped by another Gloria Patri in which the tenors and basses, with admirable rhythmic incisiveness, initiated a new figure that gradually rose through the upper voices. Again, the rapid tempo slightly blurred some harmonies and sixteenth-note figures, but the great gathering of emotional power into the climax was ample compensation.

“Having beheld the resurrection of Christ” (The Veneration of the Cross) benefitted from the performers’ distinction between the bare-octave forte chant intonation of the tenors and basses and the soft, legato ethereal harmonies first proffered by the sopranos and altos, in a blending of ancient and more modern styles of Russian liturgical music. The dramatic fortissimo climax (“bless the Lord always!”) placed the chant in octaves, sung by altos and basses, while the sopranos and tenors supplied harmony, with all voices near the top of their respective ranges.

“My soul magnifies the Lord” is another movement in verse + refrain format, wherein the verse is the Virgin Mary speaking and the refrain represents worshippers addressing her (“More honorable than the cherubim”). Despite the Magnificat being Mary’s prayer of praise and gratitude to God, Rachmaninoff’s setting assigns the melody almost wholly to the bass section. Though most of their line is comfortably within baritone range (after Alatorre’s intonation in profondo range), the three oktavists lent a distinctive timbre to the basses sound and were of course indispensable on those five occasions when the composer has them descend to low B flat. As before, Skylark beautifully encompassed the full range of contrasts, giving gravitas to the bass melody, a light, deft touch to the refrains, and visceral emotional intensity to the climax.

In the second of the two largest movements “Glory to God in the highest” (The Great Doxology), Amid a plethora of different textures, harmonic centers, rhythms, and dynamics, the ensemble and its director maintained commendable attention to detail and accuracy. To cite one example among many, the continually shifting tempos and rhythms at “Blessed Lord, have mercy on us, we put our trust in You” were navigated with confidence and emotional conviction. To maintain this degree of mental acuity over a lengthy movement late in the larger work is a testament to the performers’ powers of concentration.

The Orthodox hymn “Today salvation is in the world” was imbued with yearning for salvation in its many hairpin dynamic indications but also with a feeling of attainment of it as the artists made their phrases bloom beautifully. Additionally, they fully communicated the sense of victory at the climax, followed by compassion (“[He] has given us victory and great mercy”).

The penultimate movement, “You did rise from the dead”, thwarting one’s expectations of a vigorous, powerful setting, provides a further moment of spiritual repose and reflection. This, however, is not always true of the choral writing, e.g., when Rachmaninoff demands a pianissimo high B flat from the tenors (“[You] burst the bonds of Hades”), but they managed it convincingly. At the conclusion, the singers gave us a final expert tapering off, ending on a dominant seventh chord that even at triple-piano ached to resolve.

In the resolution also came the vigorous, joyful music of “Victorious, triumphant leader”. Here too the bracing tempo fit the text’s rejoicing perfectly at the expense of some musical details, yet considering how many fast-moving figures there are in all parts, it was remarkably clear overall. At proper tempo this movement of less than two minutes can also seem almost too short after the mega-movements 9 and 12 (indeed, Robert Shaw, with no textual authority, elected in his recording to repeat the last two pages of this five-page movement, no doubt for this reason). However, as before, with their rhythmic drive and élan Skylark’s musicians swept the audience up in exhilaration, and the concert concluded triumphantly.

Skylark by Sasha Greenhalgh

I should note how impressed I was with the very large audience at St. Paul’s on a day of lashing winds and rain as well as an exceptional number of high-profile competing musical offerings in greater Boston, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra’s concert at Symphony Hall being merely the best advertised. It is encouraging to see how many local music-lovers appreciate how special Skylark Ensemble is even in the midst of world-class competition.

Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach. He sings with the Back Bay Chorale and serves on the Board of Directors of the Old West Organ Society.

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  1. I have heard eight Skylark concerts, and they always have large audiences. Word must have gotten out- they ARE world-class.

    Comment by Susan Miron — October 31, 2019 at 5:26 pm

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