In performance: Rachmaninoff Vespers
Choral Arts Society takes on the dark glory of Vespers
by Cecelia Porter
In the numbing chill of winter 1915, Russia was locked into the devastations of World War One and its own sociopolitical unrest. As if to counter the turmoil, Sergei Rachmaninoff composed his Vigil Service, Op. 37, covering the magnificent Vespers and Matins sections of a traditional all-night Russian Orthodox service. Here Rachmaninoff's spiritual solemnity reveals another side of a composer long celebrated for the display art of his virtuosic piano concertos.
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The Vigil is a tough piece to tackle. Interlaced by three kinds of ancient Orthodox chant, the work leans heavily on dense harmonies compressed into thick sonic clusters. The choir at times is divided into multitudinous parts, and basses must reach the subterranean depths of their vocal range.
But the Choral Arts Society, a mammoth group of voices led by Norman Scribner, met the daunting challenges of this work, singing unaccompanied for 75 minutes at St. Matthew's Cathedral on Thursday night. Maintaining an underlying pulse, Scribner reinforced the music's continuity, its searing Slavic pathos and looming sense of inevitability. Alleluias and glorias were radiant, for this is music designed for such an acoustic setting as St. Matthew's: its cavernous spaces allow just enough reverberation time to sustain the fluidity of continually modulated textures and voice groupings. Alto Laura Zuiderveen and tenor Jonathan Boyd were the excellent soloists. (St. Matthew's colorful Byzantine surfaces intensified the Eastern Orthodox ambiance.)
Only towards the end of the performance did the chorus tend to sound tired, intonation and group cohesiveness becoming somewhat uncertain.
-- Cecelia Porter
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