Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
All-night Vigil, Op 37 (1915)
Arr. for male choir by Alexander Gretchaninoff, Benedict Sheehan & Dmitri Lazarev 
Igor Morozov (tenor); Evgeny Kachurovsky (baritone); Alexis V. Lukianov (octavist)
PaTRAM Institute Male Choir/Ekaterina Antonenko  
rec. 2022, Russian Orthodox Convent Monastery Church of the Ascension, Mount of Olives, Jerusalem, Israel
Russian text & English translation included
Chandos CHSA5349 SACD [70]

I first encountered the PaTRAM Institute Male Choir in 2018 when I reviewed ‘Teach Me Thy Statutes’, their revelatory disc of Orthodox Church music by Pavel Chesnokov; the disc went on to be named as MusicWeb’s Recording of the Year, 2018. This is, I think, their second disc for Chandos; an earlier one, ‘More Honourable than the Cherubim’ was released in 2021 and both my colleague Dan Morgan and I were as enthusiastic about it as we had been about the Chesnokov disc (review).  Now the choir has committed to disc one of the great pinnacles of Russian Orthodox music, Rachmaninoff’s All-night Vigil.

I’ve heard many performances and recordings of this masterpiece but I can say with confidence that I’ve never heard a recording to compare with this one. It is literally incomparable (at least in my experience) because I’ve only ever heard the work sung by a SATB choir. Here, it’s performed by an entirely male-voice ensemble. As we’re reminded in the booklet, the first choir to sing the Vigil was the Synodal Choir of Moscow’s Assumption Cathedral and that, too, was an all-male choir; however, that group used boy trebles. Here, the top line is entrusted to contra tenors and tenors. I stand to be corrected but, to the best of my knowledge, this is the first recording by a male-voice choir of the Vigil.

The choral forces are impressive. The choir comprises four contra tenors, 13 tenors, 11 baritones, 12 Basses, and no fewer than 8 octavists. With such a line-up, you won’t be surprised to learn that the sound which this choir produces is truly imposing.

In the booklet, the conductor Ekaterina Antonenko  explains that the precedent for arranging this music for a male choir was set by Alexander Gretchaninoff. He arranged the seventh movement, ‘Glory to God in the highest’. We are told that he “preserved almost the entire score of Rachmaninoff, transposing it a fifth lower”. Five other movements have been arranged by Dmitri Lazarev (movements 3 – 5, 8 & 10) and Benedict Sheehan had done the remaining nine movements. Ms Antonenko tells us that “in choosing the arrangements for this recording it was essential for us to remain as close as possible to Rachmaninoff’s original”. Sheehan, she says, “strives to preserve fully the textures of Rachmaninoff’s score, placing it in a comfortable key for male choir”. Apparently, Lazarev has been able to preserve the composer’s original keys “in most cases”. I should say straightaway that I found the arrangements completely convincing.

I got the sense that I was in for something rather special right at the start. The Deacon’s incantation (‘Arise! Master, give the blessing’) is sung by the octavist soloist, Alexis V. Lukianov. My goodness; what a voice he has! Arresting doesn’t begin to describe it. The sound is huge and cavernously deep, yet Lukianov’s voice is completely controlled and focused. It’s an astonishing sound. Once the choir begins to sing (‘Amen. Come, let us worship’) their sound is imposingly rich and sonorous. You can’t help but feel drawn in.

We are accustomed to hearing an alto soloist in the second movement (‘Bless the Lord, O my Soul’) but on this occasion we hear a baritone. Evgeny Kachurovsky sings magisterially; I liked his contribution very much. Ekaterina Antonenko gives the music all the space it needs and the choir’s unanimity and ability to sustain long lines are mightily impressive. At the start of the third movement (‘Blessed is the man’) I really appreciated the hushed singing of the repeated word ‘Alleluia’. Then, as the movement unfolds the fervour of both the music and the performance increases; by the time the music peaks the sound is magnificent and enveloping.

In the celebrated fifth movement (‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant’) tenor soloist Igor Morozov is to the fore (he’s already made a smaller but still impressive appearance in the fourth movement). He’s outstanding in this, his main solo. The voice is open-throated and marvellously controlled, even in the highest-lying passages. I struggle to recall a better performance of this demanding solo. The choir rises to a mighty climax partway through and at the very end the basses’ descent to the famous bottom B flat is rock-solid.

One thing I should say as a general comment is that for some reason, I’ve never previously been so conscious in a performance that the roots of Rachmaninoff’s Vigil lie in ancient Orthodox chants. Various chants pervade the score but I was especially aware in Movement 8 (‘Praise the name of the Lord’) and Movement 9 (‘Blessed art thou, O Lord’) which use respectively Znamenny Chant and Lesser Znamenny Chant.

The Magnificat (Movement 11) receives a very impressive performance. Here, the music shows off the astonishing compass of the choir, from sepulchral depths to the high-lying tenors. If anything, the next movement (‘Glory to God in the highest’) is even more impressive – and exciting. The performance offers a great demonstration of disciplined and committed singing; the choir is responsive to every detail of tempo and, especially, of dynamics. These excellent singers make this movement into a thrilling hymn of praise; the conclusion is superb. 

The penultimate movement (‘Thou didst arise from the tomb’) conveys a genuine sense of awe at the Resurrection of Christ. The music is mainly marked adagio and Ekaterina Antonenko’s conducting is spacious; she’s able to adopt such an approach because her singers are so sonorous and able to sustain long lines – what lungs these men must have! As I listened to this movement – and, indeed, to the rest of the performance – I wondered what it must have been like for the recording team to be in the church and hear this magnificent, burnished sound resounding around the building. The Vigil concludes with the shortest movement (‘To Thee, the victorious leader’). The PaTRAM singers infuse the music with energy and joy, the top-line tenors cutting through all the rich textures of the lower parts. It’s an exultant conclusion to a fabulous account of the Vigil

Listening to this performance has been a profound and thrilling experience. The singing is outstanding; it’s technically beyond reproach and also full of fervour. The choir produces the richest sound you could wish to hear but never is the sound congested; indeed, the part writing is clearly articulated. Also, the words (about which I’ll have something to say in a moment) can be clearly discerned. This is, in short, an exceptional performance. 

The technical side of things is similarly distinguished. The recording has been engineered by John Newton and Brandon Johnson, working with producer Blanton Alspaugh; so, although the firm’s name isn’t specifically mentioned, it seems there’s a strong presence from Soundmirror Inc. The team has produced spectacular results. The sound of the choir has terrific presence and impact, and the dynamic range of the recording complements the work that the conductor has clearly done with her singers in the matter of dynamics. The acoustic of the Church of the Ascension has been intelligently harnessed to impart a satisfying aura to the sound without blurring the choir. The stereo layer of this SACD gives great sound.

In many ways the documentation is up to Chandos’s usual very high standards, including valuable notes and a highly detailed track listing However, I must register a note of protest about one aspect. Everything apart from the notes – including even the recording credits – is printed in Russian and English. That’s fine, except that the layout could be made a little clearer, with greater spacing between the Russian and English. Where I have a major issue, though, is in the matter of the sung texts. An English translation is helpfully provided but the text itself is only given in Cyrillic Russian. It’s likely that the majority of people who buy this disc won’t have any knowledge of Russian; a transliterated text should, surely have been considered an essential requirement. I’m sorry; for an international release, the presentation of the text in this manner is totally unacceptable. If Chandos is to issue more recordings by this choir – and I sincerely hope they will – this is something that needs urgent attention.

That cavil aside, I have nothing but praise for this release; musically and sonically it’s outstanding. No matter how many versions of Rachmaninoff’s All-night Vigil you have in your collection, you must hear this one; it’s a revelation.

John Quinn

Previous review: Ralph Moore (March 2024)

Help us financially by purchasing from

Presto Music
Arkiv Music