June 2006: Rachmaninov

Liturgy of St John Chrysostom

Buckfast Abbey, Saturday 10 June 2006

Source: Stuart Hockey, 11 June 2006

"The very first notes of the cantor's solo and the Exeter Festival Chorus's explosion into the opening Blagoslovi (Bless Thou the Lord) confirmed that the Buckfast Abbey audience were set to enjoy a memorable and enthralling experience. The demandingly clear and powerful singing demanded by the Russian Orthodox tradition was strikingly produced by the massed choir: with an unusually long reverberation-time acoustic to hand, Nigel Perrin extracted every ounce of emotion from an all-embracing atmosphere of beautifully crafted harmony, clear phrasing and impeccably sustained balance - the swirling volumes of sound welled up from the left and from the right and descended from the heavens. In dramatic contrast, too, the choir moved seamlessly to the softest, gentlest chords at the appropriate moments - the swings of mood and volume could not but fail to move everyone lucky enough to be present.

The basses deserve special praise for their outstandingly luscious deep tone and for maintaining volume and top quality sonority all the way down to Rachmaninov's bottom B flats. The choir's balance was excellently maintained from fortissimo to pianissimo throughout: the slow acoustic makes the achievement of perfect ensemble in every single sudden quaver run all but impossible and just one or two minor chording challenges were inevitable in the absence of instrumental accompaniment so characteristic of Russian church music. Moving the choir from the altar to the west end during and after the Lord's Prayer helped the listeners relate text to music more easily, though at the cost of a small visual distraction during the Lord's Prayer and one of the chording problems just mentioned. The conundrum that textual consonants and sibilants are inevitably less distinct in an atmosphere of swirling harmonies precluded full appreciation of the choir's obvious successes in matching mood to text: having the programme matching russian text with english translation was very helpful but excluding the clergy cantors' leads made the challenge harder for the audience. Might the EFC repeat the Rachmaninov Liturgy in a drier environment in a year or two? That really would be another treat in store!"