April 2010: Rachmaninov Vespers

Buckfast Abbey, Saturday 10 April 2010, 7.30pm

Source: Simon Foxall

All-Night Vigil Cut Short

The Russian Orthodox Church Vigil lasts from 6.00p.m. until dawn the next day. Mercifully the Exeter Festival Chorus gave us a far shorter version of the proceedings, not in a darkened Moscow cathedral but in the incense laden atmosphere of Buckfast Abbey. The work they chose for Saturday evening was Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil, often known as the Vespers. The work presents some particular difficulties, not the least of which is its use of old Church Slavonic words. Most choirs are used to singing in Latin, and sometimes in Italian, German or French, but an ancient Eastern European ecclesiastical language is another matter entirely. Fortunately the choir possesses linguistic experts who were able to coach the singers to a state in which they seemed remarkably confident. The deep bass parts also present a formidable challenge, but we were able to hear almost all of these rich basso profondo notes.

Perhaps the most serious concern for any performers is the need to convey a sense of variety in a wholly unaccompanied, mainly chordal piece. The choir’s conductor Nigel Perrin made the most of the space available to produce a wide range of special choral effects. The singers began from behind us, at the West end of the glorious church. It was a powerful start with exhilarating dynamic contrasts which were maintained throughout the performance. Next a very capable small vocal group sang from the middle of the building before we were treated to a real ‘surround-sound’ experience, with different voices singing from left and right, and front and behind, in the manner of a great Venetian choral masterpiece. This was one of the high points of the concert and expertly controlled by the conductor.

The choir then gradually made its way Eastwards, until at one point they disappeared altogether in some remote side aisle. It’s a shame that presumably health and safety concerns prohibit the gradual dimming of the lights, as this would have added further to the sense of magic. The final chorus was performed in full view, at the remote East end of the church.

Tuning is always difficult when there are no instruments to support the voice, but Mr Perrin managed to keep the sopranos up to pitch with some judicious gestures. Penelope Davies and Stuart Mole did well in their brief solo passages and the conductor even intoned some of the chants himself in what seemed an appropriate, slightly aggressive Slavonic sounding twang. The choir expressed every nuance of light and shade and produced smoothly lyrical phrases and crisply rhythmic singing when required. It was a memorable performance in front of a sell-out audience.

Click here to listen to Exeter Festival Chorus performing the Rachmaninov Vespers at Buckfast Abbey in April 2010.