Lancashire Times
Weekend Edition
Andrew Liddle
Guest Writer
3:05 AM 18th February 2023

Classical Music: Rachmaninoff Vespers - All-Night Vigil

Rachmaninoff Vespers - All-Night Vigil

The choir of King’s College, London, conducted by Joseph Fort


Due for Release 23 February 2023

Rachmaninoff’s wonderfully romantic, dramatic and melodic symphonies, concertos and piano works are undoubtedly much better known than his choral work.

However, the All-Night Vigil, (often mis-called The Vespers), is one of the greatest pieces in the a cappella repertory and one of the most challenging.
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) was 41 at the time of composition, the lion of musical Moscow, feted on the world stage as a virtuoso concert pianist and conductor almost as much as for his two symphonies, three operas, and much-loved piano pieces and songs.

Yet the world was at war, soldiers were dying and he felt compelled to write in a completely different vein, which involved conforming to the practices of traditional Russian church music where instruments were not permitted in Orthodox services.

Composed in less than a fortnight in early 1915, it is a setting of 15 texts from the Russian Orthodox All-night Vigil ceremony, proceeding by degrees from Vespers through Matins to Prime, most based on traditional Orthodox chants. Now recognised as one of his finest works, it was also high among his personal favourites and he chose the fifth movement, the Nunc Dimittis, for performance at his funeral.

First performed in March of 1915 in Moscow, to raise money for war relief, it was an overnight success, quickly followed by more performances. Within a couple of years of its first appearance, however, the whole post-revolution Russian landscape had changed and religious expression had been driven underground. Banned in Russia until 1991, it remained unrecorded for precisely half a century, since when many recordings have happily emerged.

This, sung in Russian by the four-part, 40-strong Choir of King’s College, London, with soloists, Chris O’Leary, tenor, and Caitlin Gorering, alto, under the direction of Joseph Fort, is a worthy addition. It is an assuredly faultless interpretation of the divine masterpiece, luminous, richly textured, rapturous and reverent, every note and nuance clearly expressive, rich and passionate, yet movingly persuasive. The unison in the swelling choral passages carries what can only be described as a numinous quality - felt, intuited, experienced even completely detached as this critic is from the Russian orthodox ritualistic incantations, liturgical hymns and canticles and with little insight into the specific references. This in itself and the feeling of immediacy and Russian authenticity, not least in the bass voicing, is quite remarkable given that the All-Night Vigil was never written as a concert performance piece, and the musical spirituality is deeply embedded in the act of worship.

Although Rachmaninoff’s critical status plunged sharply during the last century’s midlife obsession with modernism, the public continued to admire his orchestral music’s harmonic richness and melodic warmth, qualities which he somehow conveys in the part-harmonies of this choral work - and which were belatedly recognised.

Although there have been some 30 prestigious recordings of the piece this century alone, this from Delphian’s burgeoning discography is a must-have for all who love Rachmaninoff.

Dr. Fort, who joined King’s in September 2015, must be congratulated on his artistry, as must his choir and all associated with this moving performance, timed to honour Rachmaninoff’s forthcoming 150th anniversary.