Wednesday 24 August 2016

A very Anglican fervour: Rachmaninov's Vesper's from John Scott and the choir of St Thomas, New York.

Rachmaninov - Vespers - John Scott, St Thomas Choir of Men and Boys - Resonus Classics
Sergei Rachmaninov All Night Vigil (Vespers); Orly Brown, David Vanderwal, Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys, John Scott; Resonus
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 16 2016
Star rating: 4.5

First of a series of recordings by the late John Scott with his New York choir, this one a very special Rachmaninov Vespers

This is a first of a series of recordings made during John Scott's tenure as director of music at St Thomas's Church, New York, and being released commercially for the first time on the Resonus Classics label. This first disc is a 2008 recording of Rachmaninov's All Night Vigil (Vespers) Op.37 on which Scott conducted the St Thomas Choir of Men and Boys, with Ory Brown (mezzo-soprano), and David Vanderwal (tenor).

There has only been one other account of the Rachmaninov Vespers issued on disc with a choir of men and boys, that of Stephen Cleobury and the choir of King's College, Cambridge. The trebles of St Thomas's Church have a clearer brighter sound that the King's ones, and the style of the two conductors is markedly different.

The sound of the choir is quite light, with a very forward placement of the vowels so that the choir retains its distinctive Anglican sound, do not buy this disc if you want dark Russian vowels and swallowed consonants. Scott uses this sound to really shape the music, he takes quite an interventionist view of the music, you notice this from the opening chorus where he has the choir giving us some very pronounced and intense phrasing, shaping the music strongly.

In the faster passages speeds are fleet, though not exceptionally so, and quite often Scott likes to draw things out at climaxes. There are some lovely transparent passages where he brings long floated lines from the choirs. Clearly Scott knew his choir and was able to take them to their limits. That he did so with a complement of eleven-year-olds (and younger) on the top line is an achievement, but that he got the trebles to sing in such a polished and sophisticated manner is a supreme achievement. The altos (male) come to the fore admirably in their solo moments, but in the main I thought the alto line could have been a little stronger to balance the very bright treble sound. The low basses are very much there, making a steady definite sound without the cavernous quality we associate with Slavic recordings of this work.

When it comes to the soloists, the recording is a little conflicted. The mezzo-soprano Orly Brown sings finely but a little discreetly as if she is aware that her full tone might contrast overly with the choir's. As a result she sounds a little under-characterised. By contrast tenor David Vanderwal uses a strong full voice, complete with significant vibrato, which hardly complements the choir's sound and I could have wished for something straighter. In fact, I did wonder what it would have sounded like with members of the choir as soloists, a counter-tenor doing the alto solos?

The disc actually starts with the Deacon's intonation, to which the choir answers 'Amin', a far more sensible approach than starting the work with 'Amin'! It is a shame that Scott did not let us hear more of this approach.

Scott seems to like the use of portamento, and the choir does a few discreet ones whilst Vanderwal incorporates a number into his solo part. Portamento is not something I have thought of in the context of Rachmaninov's choral music and they take a little getting used to.

For all the fine control and elegance of sound, there is a vibrancy to this performance which carries you along. Perhaps we might call it fervour, certainly of a very Anglican variety but there all the same. I look forward to the subsequent volumes in this series.

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) - All Night Vigil (Vespers) Op.37
Orly Brown (mezzo-soprano)
David Vanderwal (tenor)
Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys
John Scott (conductor)
Recorded in 2008 at St Thomas's Church, New York
RESONUS RES10169 1CD [58:16]
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