At the middle of last month, Musical Concepts released a reissue of a 1986 Melodiya recording of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s a cappella Opus 37, whose title in English is All-Night Vigil, on its alto label. The performers were the members of the Chamber Choir of the Ministry of Culture of the USSR, conducted by Valery Polyansky; and the original recording was taken from the Moscow Studio Archives. The soloists were mezzo Irina Arkhipova, tenor Viktor Rumantsev, and basso profundo Yuriy Vishnyakov.
This composition has an interesting recording history. The first recording was also made by Melodiya in 1965, exactly half a century after the music had been given its first performance. However, this was a time when atheism was a major cornerstone in Soviet propaganda; and, as a result, the recording was made available only for export or special private study. This is at least moderately ironic since Rachmaninoff himself was not a regular churchgoer, although he probably would not have called himself an atheist. Nevertheless, Opus 37 was one of his favorite compositions (which says something given that it has absolutely nothing to do with his virtuosity as a pianist); and he left instructions that the “Nunc dimittis” setting be sung at his funeral.
Because this music is so remote from what one expects from Rachmaninoff, it tends to receive relatively little exposure. (For that matter, if San Francisco is in any way representative, coming by any a cappella recitals is not very easy.) Thus, the mere fact that this particular recording is back in circulation is definitely worthy of attention, sufficiently so that one can forgive an approach to packaging in which text content is not always that helpful and sometimes incorrect. Because the listener is likely to benefit from background knowledge, (s)he will probably benefit from the efforts of the authorship of the Wikipedia page for this composition.
Most important is that, of the fifteen movements, each setting the text of a prayer, of All-Night Vigil, only five are original Rachmaninoff compositions. The remaining movements draw upon three styles of chant, the Znamenny Chant traditionally associated with the Russian Orthodox Church, a “Greek style” for recitation, and a “Kiev” style that only began to emerge in the sixteenth century. The Wikipedia page provides an excellent tabular representation of the movements giving the title text in both Church Slavonic and transliteration, an English translation, and the music’s origins. The prayers themselves come from Russian Orthodox services for Vespers, Matins, and The First Hour, which accounts for services that would take place over the course of a winter night (when the amount of daylight is at its shortest).
The entire recording lasts a little more than an hour. One may wish to follow the full English text in the accompanying booklet, but the major virtue of this recording resides in the sonorities of the entire cycle. This may amount to a somewhat artificial account of what one might experience at an actual Russian Orthodox service; but, between the impressive vocal qualities of this Soviet choir and Polyansky’s meticulous attention to dynamics and phrasing, one may well be better off listening to this as “context-free” music. From that point of view (or point of listening), there is more than enough to enjoy in experiencing how Rachmaninoff could work with a rich ensemble of voices divorced from the interference of any musical instruments.