Rachmaninov All Night Vigil Delphian DCD34296

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
All-Night Vigil, Op 37 (1915)
Caitlin Goreing (alto); Chris O’Leary (tenor)
The Choir of King’s College, London/Joseph Fort
rec. 2022, All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London
Russian text (transliterated) & English translation included
Delphian DCD34296 [53]

I’ve heard and enjoyed several of the recordings which the Choir of King’s College, London made for Delphian with their former director, the late David Trendell. More recently, I admired their recording of Holst’s The Cloud Messenger under Joseph Fort, who has been their Director since 2015. My colleague Gary Higginson enjoyed their 2021 recording of music by Edward Nesbit (review). I was pleased, therefore, to receive this new disc, issued to mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of Sergei Rachmaninoff.

In approaching this CD, I think you may be influenced by your preference for how you like to hear Russian Orthodox church music. If you insist on hearing an authentic Slavic sound with cavernously deep basses among the choir then you may well steer clear. If, however, you feel, as I do, that the music can be performed just as validly by a Western choir then this recording merits your attention. What you won’t hear is the traditional, very sonorous singing of a Russian choir; by compensation you’ll hear a very well trained and highly committed ensemble of young voices bringing the freshness of their singing to Rachmaninoff’s music.

I should say a word about the size and composition of the choir, Normally, I gather, it consists of around 30 voices. However, for this assignment Joseph Fort clearly believed – rightly, I’m sure – that a slightly larger group was needed. So, a number of alumni and guest singers were drafted in to bring the size of the choir up to 39 (12/8/8/11). Unsurprisingly, it was the bass section that benefitted most from these reinforcements – six supernumerary basses are listed. I think that was very wise because I often find that the sound of even the most accomplished of student choirs – and this particular choir would certainly fall into that category – can be a bit bass-light, simply because the young voices need more years to reach their full maturity.

The commitment is evident at once in the way the choir sings ‘O come, let us worship’ (I’m going to use the English titles of the movements, as given in the booklet, for ease of reference). Joseph Fort and his choir make this into the urgent call to worship that it should be. The sound is bright, fresh and clear; given the numbers involved, it’s no surprise to find the soprano line comes through strongly, though not in a dominant way. In the next piece, ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul’, there’s a reassuring, quiet firmness to the bass sound right at the start – and, jumping ahead of ourselves, they also descend softly but firmly to the famous bottom B flat at the end of the ‘Now lettest Thou’ (Nunc dimittis), even if one has heard that sepulchral note register more strongly in some other performances. ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul’ includes an important alto solo. I like Caitlin Goreing’s singing; her voice may not have that Slavic amplitude but her tone is full and has, to my ears, just the right degree of ‘edge’. I like, too, the flowing tempo adopted by Joseph Fort.

The other soloist is a tenor. He has a short appearance in the fourth movement, ‘O gladsome light’ and then, famously, takes centre stage in ‘Now lettest Thou’. The tenor here is Chris O’Leary, a member of the choir. He does well. His voice is supple and he strikes a nice balance between plangency and open-throated ring. The tessitura of ‘Now lettest Thou’ is challenging but O’Leary is undaunted.

Those three movements include important solos but elsewhere the spotlight mainly falls on the choir: these young singers do not disappoint. For example, in the third movement, ‘Blessed is the man’, their dynamics are exemplary and I especially appreciated the genuine fervour of their singing just before the last ‘Alleluia’. Their account of the eighth movement, ‘Praise ye the name of the Lord’, is joyful, the rhythms very well sprung. The following movement, ‘Blessed art Thou, O Lord’ shows how disciplined this choir is; they make the most of the contrasts in the music – but without any unwarranted exaggeration – and I thought their performance was not only committed but also genuinely exciting, especially as the piece nears its conclusion. By contrast, movements 13 (‘Today is salvation come’) and 14 (‘Having risen from the tomb’) show the ability of this choir to sustain long, slow-moving lines – and a special shout-out for the tenor section in these passages. Rachmaninoff ends with a short, celebratory setting, ‘To Thee, the champion leader’; the present performance is exuberant.

There’s a great deal to enjoy and admire here. Joseph Fort has clearly prepared his choir with great thoroughness. The discipline is very good, not least in matters of dynamics and crispness of ensemble; the diction is clear (it’s over five decades since I learned some Russian at school but even so the pronunciation of this difficult languages sounds convincing to me); the choir is well-balanced and I could hear all the parts clearly. Above all, the singers seem absolutely at home with the words, music and idiom. Having prepared them so scrupulously, Joseph Fort then conducts the music very convincingly.

I deliberately haven’t made any comparisons in preparing this review. That’s simply because all the recordings I have are either by Western choirs of professional singers, such as The Corydon Singers or Tenebrae, or else they are recordings made by Russian choirs; in neither case would one be comparing apples with apples. However, I can remember sufficiently well the several versions that I own to be able to say that the Choir of Kings College, London fare well in this company; theirs is a considerable achievement.

The quality of their singing is enhanced by the recorded sound. I’m rarely, if ever, disappointed by Delphian sound. On this occasion producer/engineer Paul Baxter has captured expertly the sound of the choir in the lovely acoustic of All Hallows Church. There’s just the right amount of warmth and resonance to the sound, but the sympathetic acoustic doesn’t interfere with clarity. In short, I find the sound ideal. The booklet is exemplary, with the text and translations clearly laid out and a most interesting essay about the work and the background to it by historian and Rachmaninoff biographer, Rebecca Mitchell.

This is a worthy tribute to Sergei Rachmaninoff in his anniversary year. It’s also a feather in the cap of this fine choir. I see from the booklet that their next release will be something very different: a CD of music by the very interesting British composer, Kerensa Briggs. That’s something to look forward to.

John Quinn

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