Tenebrae's Rachmaninov powerfully atmospheric

The Tenebrae choir with Nigel Short at the helm deliver a magnificent recording of Rachmaninov's demanding but powerful Vespers

Composer: Rachmaninov
Repertoire: Vespers
Artists: Tenebrae/Nigel Short
Rating: 5/5 
Genre: Vocal 
Label: Signum Classics SIGCD 054 

The booklet notes by David Bray are a good start. Helpfully assuming that most of us in the West aren’t familiar with the Orthodox Church’s liturgical and musical traditions, Bray explores both aspects, and Rachmaninov’s relationship to each, with readable expertise. Vespers is the first part of the Orthodox All-Night Vigil, which also includes Matins and Prime (the First Hour). Rachmaninov’s 15 unaccompanied choral settings from these services encompass a near-miraculous range of musical imagination, while respecting the traditional chants on which they’re largely based. The work’s demands are extreme, with bass parts descending to subterranean depths, and there’s also an overall need for non-stop expressive intensity of a very Russian kind. Tenebrae’s success is as complete as can be imagined from singers who are not themselves Russian. Their performance was recorded live in the quite small, but warm and clear acoustic of St Asaph Cathedral in North Wales. The result is both intimate and powerfully atmospheric, shedding new and memorable light on what usually comes across as a massive choral spectacular. The solo singing is a touch variable but the best is magnificent; and a single item from Rachmaninov’s earlier Liturgy of St John Chrysostom is included as an encore.  

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