“Historically and geographically we are, in a way, bound up with Russian culture, which allows us to understand and perform this music with less effort”, explains Kārlis Rūtentāls, a tenor with the Latvian Radio Choir in the Proms prospectus. On the strength of this, then, their account of Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil (often erroneously referred to as ‘Vespers’) on Sunday evening was hotly anticipated.
From the outset, it was clear that Sigvards Kļava, the choir’s director, exerted an iron control. All the dynamic and tempo markings of Rachmaninov’s score were observed, and there were consequently many moments of great beauty in the performance: the peaceful hush of ‘Blagoslovi, dushe moya, Gospoda’ and ‘Blazhen muzh’ (and the rapidly pulled-up alliluiyas in the latter movement); the calm of the first part of ‘Bogoroditse Devo’; the slavas in ‘Shestopsalmiye’ that almost slowed to a halt; the men’s voices in perfect synch in ‘Blagosloven yesi, Gospodi’; the well-controlled tread and skip of the final section of The Great Doxology; and the delicate sleigh-bell quality of the opening of ‘Vzbrannoy voyevode’ (coupled with the sudden reduction in dynamic in the third bar). It was a highly accomplished realisation that remained light on its feet, and certainly met the challenge (as outlined in the earlier Radio 3 broadcast about the whole Rachmaninov evening) of lessening Rachmaninov’s reputation for soupy romanticism.
And yet. Those of us who are used to the performances of the work by Russian choirs would suggest that the loss of this romantic element subtracted from the devotional nature of the piece. Partly, the building was to blame: the Vigil needs the generous acoustic of a stone building for its sonorities to blossom, and the Albert Hall’s idiosyncratic ricochets are no substitute for this (it is sad that the BBC no longer uses large churches for this type of Prom). Somehow, the voices lacked the heft of choirs of similar numbers, and it seemed almost as if Kļava’s interpretation left no room for the singers to enjoy the passages of loud rejoicing – as though the top of their dynamic range had been denied them; Vsegda blagoslovyashche Gospoda in ‘Voskreseniye Khristovo’, for example, should be an almost-abandoned celebration of the Resurrection, and yet it was only politely loud.
Surprisingly missing (given the attention to detail on dynamic and speed) was variation in texture – as though no part was allowed to predominate. At the opening of the Magnificat (‘Velichit dusha moya Gospoda’) the basses have the melody, and the effect of it being sonorously intoned under the other hushed voices can be magical, but in this performance it was lost in a more uniform dynamic texture. Also contributing to the mono-texture was the lack of solo voices, and among the special moments in the piece are the hushed choir accompanying the warm chest-voice alto solo in ‘Blagoslovi, dushe moya Gospoda’, and the effortlessly floating tenor in ‘Nine otpushchayesi’. Kļava opted to have these sung (admittedly, as Rachmaninov allows, at least for the tenor solo) by voice sections, such that the slight adjustments needed to accommodate a soloist’s rubato were lost in a uniform tempo, and the solo line was swallowed into the general choral sound; the same occurred in ‘Blagosloven yesi, Gospoda’ where the two brief tenor solos depicting the announcements of the angel at the empty tomb should soar out, but they remained solidly earthbound, held down by the need to co-ordinate three voices.
The performance was perfect, but perhaps too perfect, and the price paid for such controlled perfection was its russkaya dushá – its Russian soul.