"Rachmaninov: All-Night Vigil (Vespers)" Recorded at Bastyr University Chapel, Bothell, Washington, June 9, 13, 14, 1998.
During the period from 1880 to 1917 a renaissance occurred in Russian choral music, resulting in the "New Russian Choral School" of composers. This was a time of great outpouring of compositions for the church by major composers, among them Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Chesnokov and Kastalsky. The previous 150 years of Russian choral music had been dominated by German and Italian influences - the composers of the "New Russian Choral School" returned to old Russian chant as the source for their choral works for the church, and established a thoroughly Russian choral style. While Sergei Rachmaninov wrote only a few choral works, they are among the crowning achievements of Russian choral music. His All-Night Vigil (Vespers) represents the culmination of the work of the New Russian Choral School of composers. Of his sacred Slavonic choral works, there are only three: a sacred concerto, The Theotokos, Ever-Vigilant in Prayer, a setting of The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, and the All-Night Vigil. All were written within a 22-year time span, 1893-1915, during the height of the New Russian Choral School and during his most active compositional period.
The All-Night Vigil is comprised of texts for the services of Vespers, Matins and Prime. Composed in 1915, it was probably intended for concert performance rather than for liturgical use, although Rachmaninov did not specify. However, from the time of its premiere up to the present day, it has been heard almost exclusively in concert settings. Rachmaninov was not particularly religious and not intimately familiar with the liturgy and traditional musical settings of the church; thus, his compositional approach to the All-Night Vigil was fresh, innovative and unique. Using authentic Russian chant melodies as his compositional foundation for nine of the fifteen movements, he composed melodies to sound like chant for the other six movements, calling them "conscious counterfeits." Of the authentic chants used, some were familiar and widely sung in church services of the time (i.e., #2 - Blagosloven yesi, Ghospodi), while others were ancient and unfamiliar znamenny chant melodies. (Znamenny means "written in signs," and refers to the ancient Russian system of non-Western musical notation.) In all cases, he made free use of the chants as compositional material, in some cases altering them slightly or distributing them among the voices in an orchestral manner.
Like most composers of the New Russian Choral School, Rachmaninov employed a procedure known as "choral orchestration," calling on the singers to make use of a wide range of techniques: varieties of choral color, divisi passages, carefully placed articulations, and a vivid palette of controlled dynamic nuances. He also made use of a technique found in Russian folk song, called counter-voice polyphony, which eschews Western European counterpoint, while allowing the use of parallel voice leading, melodic lines with a drone, a constantly changing number of voices in the choral texture, formal structures based upon text, and imitation among voices (providing the text is not obscured.) The virtuosic nature of Rachmaninov's choral writing for the Vigil is formidable. The basses, for example, are required to cover a range of two-and-a-half octaves, from high F down to low Bb (below low C). The conductor of the first performance remarked to Rachmaninov, "Where can I find basses like this? It's like looking for asparagus at Christmas!"
But for all of the compositional innovation and technical prowess evident in Rachmaninov's All-Night Vigil, what leaves a lasting impression on the listener and performer is the intense expression with which Rachmaninov imbues the texts of the Vigil. The work encompasses a wealth of moods and emotions, ranging from meditative introspection to praise and proclamation. After hearing a performance, the critic V. Derzhanovsky wrote, "Perhaps never before has Rachmaninov approached so close to the people, to their style, to their soul, as in this work."
Liner notes by Karen P. Thomas
The Seattle Pro Musica emphasizes a detached purity of line that underscores the melody, offsetting the rich harmonies... Balance is superb - not just recording balance, but among the four divisions of voice." Fanfare, March/April 2003
American Record Guide says: "They sing with incredible smoothness, rich sonic textures, impeccable technique, and truly heartfelt emotionality. It is fully on a par with (Robert) Shaw's account in terms of choral accomplishment, but Thomas and company do an even better job of plumbing the piece's deep spirituality and credibly evoking the Slavic pathos... this is a masterly and utterly gorgeous reading that illuminates many of the work's profoundest passages with subtle clarity, while delivering plenty of power and punch where called for."
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer has praised the group's "crystalline textures and precise musicality" and "technical finesse" as well as its "provocative and evocative" programming.
Seattle Pro Musica, winner of the Margaret Hillis Achievement Award for Choral Excellence and the ASCAP/Chorus America Award for Adventurous Programming of Contemporary Music, is a critically acclaimed choral ensemble, performing under the direction of conductor and artistic director Karen P. Thomas. Seattle Pro Musica is widely considered to be one of the finest ensembles in the Pacific Northwest - American Record Guide ranks it "among America's very best choirs." Seattle Pro Musica has received international recognition and acclaim for its CD recordings and live performances. Choir and Organ magazine (Great Britain) writes: "...there is great depth and purity in this performance... Seattle Pro Musica presents a cappella singing at its best..." Fanfare Record Magazine writes: "The Seattle Pro Musica's intonation is razor sharp..." and "the tone and blend are exquisite."
Seattle Pro Musica
Karen P. Thomas, conductor
Performing edition and translation by Musica Russica. Used by permission.
Recorded by Loft Recordings www.organloft.com
Recording Producer: Roger Sherman
Recording Engineer: Sarah Holberg
Booklet design: Magrit Baurecht
Front illustration: The Omnipotent Saviour, Kirill Ulanov (1728)
Copyright 1998. All rights reserved.
Seattle Pro Musica
1756 NW 56th St.
Seattle, WA 98107