Tuesday 2 April 2024

Like no other: Rachmaninoff's Vespers in a remarkable new recording arranged for men's voices

Sergei Rachmaninoff: All-Night Vigil, Op. 37 (Vespers), arranged, Benedict Sheehan (born 1980), Dmitri Lazarev (born 1980), Alexander Gretchaninoff (1864-1956); PaTRAM Institute Male Choir, conductor Ekaterina Antonenko; CHANDOS

Sergei Rachmaninoff: All-Night Vigil, Op. 37 (Vespers), arranged, Benedict Sheehan, Dmitri Lazarev, Alexander Gretchaninoff; PaTRAM Institute Male Choir, conductor Ekaterina Antonenko; CHANDOS
Reviewed 1 April 2024

A new version of Rachmaninoff Vespers for men's voices preserves the work's luminous textures and adds a wonderful warm glow and rich textures, plus some spectacular voices

Rachmaninoff wrote his All-Night Vigil (Vespers) for an all-male choir (men and boys) in 1915, though the work's history since then has largely been amongst mixed-voice choirs. But various attempts have been made to adapt the material to men-only choirs. Inspired by one of composer Alexander Gretchaninoff's arrangements of a movement for men-only, the PaTRAM Institute (Patriarch Tikhon Russian-American Music Institute) assembled a crack men-only choir, the PaTRAM Institute Male Choir, under conductor Ekaterina Antonenko to record a new version of Rachmaninoff's All-Night Vigil for men's voices, with soloists Igor Morozov, Evgeny Kachurovsky and Alexis V. Lukianov (co-founder of the PaTRAM Institute) on the Chandos label.

The recording was made in the Orthodox Convent Monastery Church of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, with an international choir of 50 men - four contra tenors, six tenor one, nine tenor two, five baritone one, six baritone two, seven bass one, five bass two and eight octavists and the recording is very much predicated on the ability of the octavists to not just reach the lowest contrabass notes but to sustain a coherent contrabass vocal line.

The movement arranged by Gretchaninoff was used whilst the others were arranged by composers from Russia and the USA – Dmitri Lazarev and Benedict Sheehan. The exact arrangement varies from movement to movement. Gretchaninoff transposes the music down an fifth, and for many of the movements Sheehan does a similar transposition, requiring the tenors to go up to a high D flat, and the octavists to go down to a contrabass F. Other movements arrangement by Lazarev keep Rachmaninoff's keys but try to keep the textures as close as possible to the original.

The result takes some adjustment, tenor solos become baritone solos (Evgeny Kachurovsky) and alto solos become tenor solos (Igor Morozov). It particularly took some getting used to having the second movement, 'Bless the Lord, O my soul' in a lower key with a baritone rather than tenor solo. The approach taken means that any overall key scheme that Rachmaninov might have had is gone, and instead each movement is given in the best version possible. The octavists (from Russia, America and Canada) are indeed spectacular, and the recording makes quite a thing of them though I did wonder whether the recording balance had been adjusted and whether the eight contrabass voices would be quite so prominent live. Less trumpeted by the recording booklet but no less important to the enterprise are the high tenors, billed as contra tenors, who brilliantly take the line up to the high places.

The result is a wonderful symphony of luxuriantly rich textures, Rachmaninoff's vespers in excelsis. Many of the movements preserve the warm glow of the original, keeping the luminous quality and adding a warmth that results from the rather special texture of a male voice choir.

I have to say that I found Ekaterina Antonenko's speeds very much on the slow side. She takes a relaxed, spacious approach to the music, even in the faster sections towards the end. This does mean that not only do we get to relish the sounds of the male voices, but we luxuriate in them. Logic tells me that there may be a practical reason for the approach too, to allow for the extra time it might take for the contrabass voices to speak. Stephen Cleobury's altogether lighter and more fleet version with the men and boys of the choir of King's College, Cambridge knocks almost ten minutes of Antonenko's overall running time.

The result is a very special recording indeed. There is a lovely sheen to the sound, the singers are clearly all very experienced in this repertoire and their relaxed quality is a joy. This is not the ultimate recording of Rachmaninv's Vespers but it is a something very special indeed.

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) -  All-Night Vigil, Op. 37 (Vespers)
arranged by Benedict Sheehan (born 1980), Dmitri Lazarev (born 1980), Alexander Gretchaninoff (1864-1956)
PaTRAM Institute Male Choir
Igor Morozov (tenor)
Evgeny Kachurovsky (baritone)
Alexis V Lukianov (octavist)
Ekaterina Antonenko (conductor)
Recorded at Russian Orthodox Convent Monastery Church of the Ascension, Mount of Olives, Jerusalem, Israel, 23 – 25 June 2022
CHANDOS CHSA 5349 1CD [70:13]

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