Conductor’s top 5: Rach Vespers recordings

In preparation for the Epiphoni Consort’s performance on 10th September, and in the first of a series of Top Fives, Artistic Director Tim Reader identifies five favourite movements of the Rachmaninov All-night Vigil (aka The Vespers), and a favourite recording for each.

5: Nïne otpushchayeshi (Nunc Dimittis)
St. Petersburg Cappella (Vladislav Chernushenko)

Number five in my countdown is number #5 from the set, the Nunc Dimittis. It contains the best of this piece: a thunderous climax, heart-rending solo and the famous low B flat at the end. It was Rachmaninov’s favourite of the lot, if not indeed one of his favourite compositions: he asked for it to be sung at his funeral.

The recording by Capella St Petersburg is hard to come by, but some of it is out there on the ‘net. The Nunc recording is sublime and employs a soloist in much more reflective mould than you generally hear.

Do stick around for the climax at the 2-minute mark.

4. Bogoroditse Dyevo (Ave Maria)
King’s College Cambridge (Stephen Cleobury)

People were pretty sniffy when King’s College Cambridge recorded the Rachmaninov Vespers — could boy trebles and young men create the necessary colour and depth required of this work? Actually they could. It was the first recording I owned and, revisiting it after all these years, it remains a very accomplished interpretation to my ear.

3. Blagoslovi, dushe moya, Gospoda (Bless the Lord, O My Soul)
Netherlands Radio Choir

A hymn to creation, the focal part of this movement is a warm alto solo against a slow-moving chordal backdrop of profound basses and cherubic sopranos.

This rendition features a fabulous soloist – somehow rich as well as meek, imbuing the text with meaning and a pleasing absence of ostentatiousness. Movingly reflective, with great flexibility of tempo from the chorus.

2. Khvalite imya Gospodne (O Praise the Name of the Lord)

Nearly my favourite movement of the whole thing, I’ve yet to find a recording of how I hear it in my head. At the point in the service where this is sung, candles are lit, doors are opened and priests process in robed in full vestments. For this reason perhaps conductors think it should be ceremonially slow; but to me it’s joyful and up-tempo.

The tenors and sopranos represent a heavenly voice; the altos and basses are ‘the people’ and this rousing hymn-like tune should have something of abandon about it.

In the case of the otherwise hard-to-fault rendition above — wind on to 28:50 — it’s too exuberant. The Latvian Radio Choir’s take, from an excellent recording, has the right mood but starts too fast, adjusting the second section with a change in tempo which is cheating!

I also admire, and must mention as it’s been an inspiration, The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir’s recording of the Vespers, conducted by Paul Hillier, and this movement is strong, but still not a favourite.

I have to return to King’s College Cambridge for the “best” (by which I mean, most matching my own!) interpretation:


1: Vzbrannoy voyevode (To thee, O victorious leader)
Tenebrae (Nigel Short)

The fifteenth and final movement is Rachmaninov at his best. Like his 2nd piano concerto, imbued with melancholy, we are steered back to the perennial ‘conclusion key’ of C major in a hymn of undiluted joy. Despite the context in which this piece was written (during the long first winter of the First World War and as a fundraiser for the war effort) and with all its anguish, struggle and pain, it still finds a way to celebrate, to conclude, if you like, that it’s all OK because we have music.

My favourite recording of #15 is by Tenebrae, one of the world’s leading choirs at the present time. When released, opinion was divided on whether their Russian Treasures and Vespers recordings truly capture the sound of the Russian Orthodox Church but Nigel Short’s attention to the score combined with the committed, technically supreme singing from this choir of only medium forces wins me over, most especially in the final movement. This recording is live but they show no fatigue after an hour’s singing of a notoriously demanding work. I can only hope the same can be said of us!

We perform the full Vespers at St Martin in the Fields on 10th September 2015 at 21:30. Duration 1 hour.

For more information see our events page or visit the St Martin in the Fields site for tickets