Thursday, 16 May 2019

An English Vespers: Rachmaninov from the Tallis Scholars

Sergei Rachmaninov in the 1910s
Sergei Rachmaninov in the 1910s
Rachmaninov All Night Vigil (Vespers); The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips; Cadogan Hall Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 15 May 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A lighter more intimate approach to Rachmaninov's Vespers, combined with the music of Sir John Tavener to striking effect

There is an English tradition of Rachmaninov's choral music, the composer even visited All Saints' Church, Margaret Street and heard the choir there under Dr Walter Vale perform Vale's English adaptation of Rachmaninov's Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. But it wasn't until the 1990s that performances of Rachmaninov's All Night Vigil by non-Slavic choirs became commonplace, until then one had to rely on recordings from Russian, Bulgarian and other Slav choirs, all firmly in the Russian Orthodox tradition. With the performance of the work by British choirs, with their very different choral technique, a different way of performing the work developed. Whilst still including the striking low bass parts, the results were often faster and lighter, making a virtue of the very different technique.

So I went along to the Cadogan Hall on Wednesday 15 May 2019 with realistic expectations of what we might be hearing when Peter Phillips and The Tallis Scholars performed Rachmaninov's All Night Vigil as part of a Rachmaninov and John Tavener programme for Choral At Cadogan.

The ensemble was expanded to 17 singers (with an all-female alto line), including the bass Jeremy White (familiar from the Royal Opera House) providing reinforcement on the low bass line. The programme interspersed the movements from the Rachmaninov with works by Tavener, plus Rachmaninov's setting of The Lord's Prayer from the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. In the first half this meant slipping Tavener's Funeral Ikos between movements four and five of the Rachmaninov, which worked well. But in the second half we had Tavener's The Lamb and Lord's Prayer between movements 12 and 13, which seemed to sit more uneasily. Occasional corners suggested that the work was perhaps not quite as well bedded in to the choir as their regular repertoire.

In the Rachmaninov, the choir made a focused but quite light sound with Phillips giving us fast-ish tempos, though not slavishly so.
It was also a very clean sound, essentially adapting Rachmaninov to the core Tallis Scholars sound, rather than the other way round, and this is a perfectly valid idea. Phillips made the most of his relatively small choir and the overall feel of the performance was intimate and thoughtful, rather than vehemently passionate. Phrases were always beautifully shaped and climaxes, when they came, were fast and quick to die away.

This was an evening of contrasts, the faster sections contrasting with the slow, thoughtful ones, the quiet intimacy with the moments of intense drama, the smooth lines with the more pointed, crisp and energetic rhythms, the languid beauty with moments of intense energy.

It was a performance which was always poised, always beautiful and always under control, the piece never ran away with itself and whilst the final movement was crisply lively, it lacked the cumulative, cathartic feel that some performances bring to it. At its best, the Vespers is a work of passion and endurance, whereas here we had a group beautifully in control. This meant that everything was profoundly beautiful, but lacked the visceral grip and rough edges of a more intense and passionate performance.

There were some fine solos, notably from alto Caroline Trevor and tenor Guy Cutting. One big feature of the sound-world was the way that the first tenors sang with a fluid elegance more familiar from earlier music than in Rachmaninov, and the low altos similarly had beautiful focused line rather than vibrato-laden depth of tone.

This was a fascinating experiment, Peter Philips talked about performing Byrd with a choir in Moscow, so performing Rachmaninov with a choir in London was just as valid, and this was a profoundly beautiful performance.

The Tavener Funeral Ikos is amazing in its simplicity, and as such hard to do well. Here the choir (reduced to 12) gave us a superbly crafted performance which focused attention on the amazing work. The Lamb and The Lord's Prayer were sung by eight singers (a different grouping for each), beautifully done but I was less certain about the way the music fitted into the programme. Rachmaninov's setting of The Lord's Prayer was performed in English, to striking effect. Do choirs ever sing the Vespers in English, it would be an interesting effect I think.

There was an encore, Poulenc's Salve Regina

Elsewhere on this blog
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    • Visitors in fine form: the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla (★★★) - concert review
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  • Incredibly informative & inspiring: Charlotte Bray discusses her mentor Oliver Knussen in advance of her piece in his memory at the Aldeburgh Festival - interview
  • An English Vespers: Rachmaninov from the Tallis Scholars (★★★) - concert review 
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  • A young man's passion: Julian Prégardien & Erik Le Sage in Robert Schumann's Dichterliebe (★★★★) - CD review
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