Chicago Chorale soars high and goes deep in Rachmaninoff “Vespers”

Mon Mar 21, 2016 at 3:16 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Sergei Rachmaninoff's "Vespers" was performed by the Chicago Chorale Sunday at Hyde Park Union Church.
Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Vespers” was performed by the Chicago Chorale Sunday at Hyde Park Union Church.

The music of Sergei Rachmaninoff is hardly terra incognita to the world’s concert halls, with the Russian composer’s concertos and symphonies perennially successful box-office bait (his Third Piano Concerto is on the CSO’s program this very week).

There is not much music by Rachmaninoff that goes neglected but one rarely heard work is his Vespers, which was performed by the Chicago Chorale Sunday afternoon at Hyde Park Union Church.

Premiered 101 years ago, the Vespers–also known as the All-Night Vigil–remains something of an outlier in Rachmaninoff’s oeuvre. For nine of the fifteen movements, the composer drew on existing chants from the dominant triumvirate of modes (Znameny, Greek and Kiev), while writing his own melodies for six sections. Yet Rachmaninoff imbued his themes so convincingly with Russian Orthodox flavor that most listeners would find it difficult to discern between the ancient and new.

The Vespers was Rachmaninoff’s favorite of all his works, and the moving performance given by the Chicago Chorale Sunday under Bruce Tammen indeed made an eloquent case for the Vespers as the composer’s finest achievement.

Rachmaninoff’s orchestral works remain beloved for their melodic richness, melancholy lyricism, and thrillingly frantic virtuosity. Yet the choral writing in the Vespers mines a wider and deeper vein of expression throughout its nearly hour-long length, with a remarkable array of choral hues and subtle yet precise painting of the Christian texts.

Sunday’s glorious performance by the Chicago Chorale would be impressive coming from a professional chorus. But for an all-volunteer ensemble, the singing under Tammen’s vigorous direction was simply magnificent—transporting the overflow audience from a cold, brightly sunny afternoon in Hyde Park to a midnight mass at St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. One could almost smell the incense.

The singing from the 66-member ensemble was polished and richly idiomatic throughout this challenging score. Perhaps the basses’ rather woolly low B flat in the infamous subterranean coda of the “Nunc dimittis” section (No. 5) was approximate rather than penetrating. But for the most part the singing was beyond reproach and close to immaculate throughout.

Artistic director Tammen remains one of our finest choral conductors and he elicited consistently refined and glowing vocalism that conveyed the variegated spiritual responses to the text. In addition to the prevailing mode of concentrated piety, he brought out the carol-like cheer of the closing section of “The Great Doxology,” and uninhibited rejoicing to the finale, “O Victorious Leader.”

All of the Chorale sections were superb but the resplendent sopranos and mezzos were especially inspired. The women were at their best in “Bless the Lord, O my Soul,” radiant in the “Ave Maria,” and held the extended pedal point at the end of the “Hymn of the Resurrection” for an astonishing length of time without any evident strain. Tenor Bill McDougall provided febrile, echt-Slavic contributions in the cantorial solo sections.

Let’s hope that the Chicago Chorale has recorded these wonderful performances for wider distribution. One can hardly imagine a finer legacy for the ensemble in its 15th anniversary season.

The Chicago Chorale presents a benefit concert at Ida Noyes Hall 6:30 p.m. May 21.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Chicago Chorale soars high and goes deep in Rachmaninoff “Vespers””

  1. Posted Mar 21, 2016 at 5:36 pm by Marnie

    Jonathan Oblander, Music and Choir Director at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Oak Park, even though we were both tired after conducting and singing jazz mass for Palm Sunday, we were both mesmerized. I had spread the word way ahead of time but so many people who couldn’t attend the concert were jealous of us, and will be even more jealous when we tell them what a perfect afternoon we had on Sunday, when we are all back together again on Wednesday to rehearse for Holy Week.

    The Chorale never disappoints me and always brings me to a place of joy and peace. Yes, the singing is beautiful, but there is also healing in those voices!

  2. Posted Mar 22, 2016 at 10:23 pm by Mrs. Marilyn Oaks

    I drove from Springfield to hear this glorious rendition of VESPERS, and attended both performances, which were magnificent! The soprano-also duets were gorgeous, and the chorus voices were so “in sync” on the Russian text. Amazing What “food for the soul”!
    Marilyn Oaks
    retired music teacher

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