Rachmaninov’s Vespers

St John’s, Smith Square, London. 3rd June 2006

All night vigil confirms choir’s passion

The Vasari Singers is a choir clearly enjoying riding the crest of a wave of successes that can be traced back to their inspirational concert in May 2004, at St John’s, Smith Square. On that occasion, the choir delivered a beautifully crafted programming structure of linked contemporary and historical works, and the group has continued to perform similarly well-structured, inspirational concerts.

In the following two years, that wave has swept the choir to its current heights, via an impressive commissioning programme in 2005 and a World Premiere performance 3 weeks earlier of the final one of those anniversary commissions, to tonight’s performance of Rachmaninov’s Vespers. The critics were hugely impressed with Pott’s The Cloud of Unknowing, and the large audience were similarly impressed with this moving performance.

Featuring a short first half, the Vasaris, under their musical director Jeremy Backhouse, filled the auditorium with a rich tapestry of sounds. From the familiar names of Henryk Gorecki and Sir John Tavener, they introduced contemporary American composers Eric Whitacre and Morten Lauridsen – the former currently receiving considerable exposure both in the US and the UK. At the interval, the audience was left wanting more.

The second half showcased Rachmaninov’s All-night Vigil in its entirety. Never an easy work to perform, the Vespers requires immense stamina, dynamic control, vocal range and employs multiple divided parts in each voice. With such a long work, there is always a risk of failing to sustain the musical interest over 65minutes, and perhaps this serves to highlight the difficulty in presenting a setting of a 6-hour Orthodox Church service as a concert piece, but the Vasari Singers gave it their absolute all and delivered a performance of genuine spirituality and verve. Of particular note was the tenor soloist, Simon Wall, curiously under-employed by Rachmaninov.

Vasari Singers has been regularly described in the media as one of the most accomplished choirs in the UK, and on this evidence, that is a well-justified claim. In the coming months, they will release a new CD of Will Todd’s Mass in Blue, in a concert at London’s St Martin-in-the-Fields. This is another intriguingly structured concert; titled “Radical Masses”, it will pair this jazz mass with Palestrina’s sublime Missa papae Marcelli. If any choir can deliver a convincing performance of two such contrasting styles of choral music, it is the versatile Vasari Singers.

© James Dance 2006

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