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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Vespers (All-Night Vigil), op.37
Ulrike Koch (alto), Alexander Yudenkov (tenor), SWR Vokalensemble / Marcus Creed
rec. 2004, Christuskirche Stuttgart Gänsheide, Germany
SWR MUSIC SWR19522CD [59:06]

This is a welcome re-release of one of the SWRmusic label’s bestsellers, originally published in 2004. For many years now, the SWR Vokalensemble has been counted among the top international choral ensembles for 20th century music, and Marcus Creed has been their chief conductor since 2003.

There are now many fine recordings of this unique work in the catalogue. Unsurprisingly, the very best tend to be Russian, notably the St.Petersburg Chamber Choir under Nikolai Korniev, and an earlier version by the same group under Vladislav Tchernouchenko. The latter is possibly the most convincingly authentic performance on disc in both sound and approach.

There are some very satisfying non-Russian versions, from choirs in Latvia, Estonia and Bulgaria, and some splendid British recordings too, including those by Kings College Choir, and by the Corydon Singers. My personal favourite is the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir under English conductor Paul Hillier.

The competition is pretty intense, then. There is no doubt that a huge part of success in this music is to do with achieving the right sound, and that sound depends to a very large extent upon the basses in the choir. It is not simply a matter of being able to get down to the very low notes either: the quality and resonance of the sound they make is also vital. The altos, too, must be able to produce the required richness of tone, as found in Russian choirs. (Spare us male altos! Quite wrong here.)

This SWR Vokalensemble version does impressively well on those two counts, and benefits from a radiantly beautiful soprano line, some of the best top-line singing in any version. The tenors are good as well (listen to their superb work at the start of track 15), and there is an accuracy of intonation and ensemble that places this in the highest echelon of choral singing.

Then there are other crucial factors, among them the choice of soloists, alto and tenor. This is where Hillier and his Estonians are so outstanding; the tenor soloist sings with such gentleness and beauty of tone. Marcus Creed’s pair are not quite of the same standard. The alto, Ulrike Koch, does not have enough weight of tone, while Alexander Denkov is, for my taste, a little too throaty and intense.

The other factor is, of course, the acoustic, which needs to be resonant and responsive without totally blurring the music’s outlines. In this respect, SWR have found a splendid answer in the lovely but very simple Lutheran Christuskirche in East Stuttgart. Plasterwork does the trick again!

This, in the end, would not be my Desert-Island-Discs Vespers. It is nevertheless truly very fine, and should have an honoured place on the shelves of any lover of this sublime work.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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