- Vespers (All-Night Vigil), for alto, tenor & chorus, Op. 37
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It may seem hard to believe, but Sergey Rachmaninov's "All-Night Vigil," also known inaccurately as the "Vespers" (it is an a cappella setting of several texts from the Russian Orthodox All-Night Vigil, a ceremonial event combining not only the "Vespers" but other canonical hours), was not recorded until 1965, half a century after its composition. Until the late 1980s non-Russian recordings were rare, while those made in Russia had to contend with official disapproval from the religion-leery Soviet state. Since then, both Russian and Western recordings have come fast and furious. Interpretations are as varied as for any major work of the 20th century, with everything from magnificently rumbling but tonally insecure Russian singers to precise but pale Western cathedral choirs taking on the work. Obviously individual taste is a contributing factor, but this release by the small Latvian Radio Choir under Sigvards Klava may make a good compromise candidate. This is a virtuoso group, and they have the sheer power needed for the music. There's a bit of grain to the voices of the sopranos: not pulsing, wobbling vibrato, but enough texture to make you feel the presence. The basses hit the low notes and are captured in full color by Ondine's engineers. What you sacrifice here is the sense of drama you sometimes get from the Russian choirs: even in this, his most formal work, Rachmaninov was full of sentiment. Part of the affect (or lack thereof) derives from Klava's glacial pacing; the work comes in about ten minutes longer than in many other versions, including perhaps its closest competitor, the Paul Hillier/Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir version on Harmonia Mundi. The choir has what it takes to keep this going, but not to let the music take them over emotionally. On balance, a beautifully engineered and generally very strong version of a work that, freed from the tyrannies of modernism and Communism, is still revealing itself.