March 10th was the 100-year anniversary of the first performance of Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil. Coincidentally, this was also the release date of a new recording of the Vespers, by The Kansas City Chorale and the Phoenix Chorale under Charles Bruffy. To be honest, I have heard so many recordings of the Vespers that it is difficult for me to become excited about another. My favorite is perhaps still the 1968 recording by Sveshnikov. This 1968 rendition is for many the canonical recording for its huge bass section and authentic Russian Orthodox sound.
Bruffy’s recording has me excited, however. I must begin by observing that it is one of the more reverent recordings I have encountered. One general mistake of Western choirs is to perform the All-Night Vigil in a way that misses its meditative aspect. As a Western listener familiar with the Orthodox tradition, even I can hear when choirs get this wrong, though I cannot detect more nuanced errors such as mispronounced Slavonic. (I should mention that I sent the iTunes link to one of my Russian Orthodox friends in Rostov-on-Don, and after listening to the disc he mentioned specifically that the Slavonic pronunciation was quite good.) Bruffy's recording does a great job of communicating the contemplative, spiritual depth of this work with its wonderfully reflective tempos and soloists who understand that this work comes out of the Church and not the opera house.
The singers of the Phoenix and Kansas City Chorales are to be particularly commended for their clarity. One difficulty of a slow, reverent tempo is preserving the clarity of the singing: it can drag, or become muddied. That certainly is not the case here. It will not surprise many that my favorite moment of the All-Night Vigil comes in the fifth movement. What will surprise is that it is not the final descent to contra B flat. It is instead the moment when the sopranos sing a beautiful, sustained third on ‘svet’—then the altos join in, and so on. This moment is so breathtaking in its simplicity and purity, but it can be ruined by so many things: too much vibrato, a rushed tempo, etc. In the Bruffy recording this moment has room to breath, and the clarity of the women’s voices adroitly captures the beauty of this passage.
Speaking of the fifth movement, the basses are, of course, are quite important to me, and I've been pleased to hear the lows well supported on this new recording. They do not have quite the power of the Sveshnikov recording with its interpolated contra Gs (few choirs do), but the final B flat of 'Nyne Otpushchayeshi' is certainly a success, and the bass section is a pleasure to listen to throughout. I originally discovered that these chorales were recording the Vespers after stumbling across a series of entertaining tips the Phoenix Chorale posted on YouTube on how to navigate the challenges the Vespers present for basses. Here is tip #153: sleep in.
You can listen to some excerpts of the album and hear Bruffy talk about it here:
All things considered, this recording is a refreshing one, and certainly worth a listen, even for those who have heard quite a few performances of Rachmaninov's choral masterpiece.
Purchase the album on iTunes here. I highly recommend it.