It was a wet and cold Saturday evening in Southwark, yet a large number of religious-music lovers were keeping themselves warm inside St. George`s Metropolitan Cathedral. They were attending a soulful rendering of the Russian composer Rachmaninoff`s “All-Night Vigil” by the Purcell Singers at a concert on 21st October.
The concert, by one of London`s leading chamber choirs the Purcell Singers, was conducted by their renowned conductor and the Cathedral’s Director of Music, Mr Jonathan Schranz. It was held in tribute to Rachmaninoff on the 150th anniversary of his birth. Rachmaninoff, who is widely considered to be one of the finest pianists and composers of his day, was born on 1st April 1873.
“All-Night ” Vigil (Vespers) is his second major choral work, and was written in 1915 in the middle of the First World War. It was received warmly at its Moscow premiere in aid of the First World War relief.
“Though not a particularly religious man himself, Rachmaninoff was drawn to the music of the Church, the ancient chants of both the Russian and Greek traditions and in particular the sound of bells, ” Jonathan Schranz said
“The purpose of the Vigil is to show a sense of beauty in the setting sun and give the congregation a chance to consider the spiritual light of Christ, the new light of the coming day and the eternal light of the heavenly kingdom.”
The concert began with the rendition of “Vestchernya – Vespers” — a fourfold call to prayer. It includes the words: “Come, let us worship and fall down before Christ, God and Maker.” Based on Psalm 103, this was rendered solemnly with an alto solo singing a melody based on Greek chant, alternating with soprano and alto, against a background of tenor and bass.
This was followed by a soulful rendition of Psalm 1, the verses alternating with “Alleluia”. The verses sung by middle voices- alto and tenor- and the refrain by the full choir. Then the choir sang as one voice “Evening Hymn of Light”, one of the most ancient hymns of the Orthodox Church. The melody is a Kiev chant using only four notes and was sung by the tenors. The text carries the words: “Heavenly Father, holy and blessed, Jesus Christ……we praise the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit, God”
Then came the setting of the “Song of Simeon” (Luke 2:29-32) which is considered to be the high point of Vespers. Rachmaninoff was said to be particularly fond of this movement and wanted it at his funeral, but his wish was not granted.
This was followed by a `Hymn to the Mother of God ‘ in praise of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The three fold setting was very solemn but full of rejoicing and gladness, and the singers gave their best in their rendering. It contained the words, ” Virgin Mother of God rejoice.”
Then came “Utrenya- Matins”-a chorus in praise of God. It precedes the reading of the Six Psalms expressing man`s sense of loss and separation from God. The next rendition was called “Praise the name of the Lord” with words from Psalm 135 and named “Polyeleos”, which means both “much mercy and much oil”. This is a moment of reconciliation with God. Rachmaninoff uses a `znamenny` chant in octaves for altos and bass, marking the music ´Spiritoso`.
“The Evlogitaria”, which followed next, is a series of stanzas in praise of the Resurrection and one of the longest of the Vigil (around seven minutes). The refrain (Slava Otsu i Sinu– `Blessed art thou O Lord`) was used by Rachmaninoff at the end of his life in his “Symphonic Dances”. It has the lyrics: “Blessed are you Lord, teach me thy statutes.”
This was followed by “The Magnificat” (Luke 1: 46-55). Mary`s words given to the bass at first, then alternates with an antiphon “Higher than the Cherubim.” This began in various different keys but always cadences in B Flat.
Then came the climax of the Matins with the exclamation: “Glory to Thee who has shown us the light.” This rendition contained some of the most rhythmically and harmoniously complex music of the Vigil. Yet it was very uplifting. This was followed by two Resurrection hymns.
The nearly an hour Vigil sung by about 40 singers, ended with another hymn to the Virgin called the “Akathist Hymn”. This is named as such because the people stand throughout. It ended the All-Night Vigil in a suitably splendid fashion. The lyrics had these words: ” Set us free from all calamities, then shall we cry to Thee: ‘Rejoice, unwedded Bride.’”
It was an uplifting, inspiring and joyful divine music evening, and the singers received a standing ovation from the audience.
The Purcell Singers will give another concert entitled “Ave Maria: Christmas with Purcell Singers” at St. George`s Cathedral on Saturday 9th December.