Rehearsals are well under way for our up-coming performance of Rachmaninov's 'All Night Vigil' on 24th November. I think the choir is beginning to realise what an epic feat it is to perform this sublime piece of music in full, in Russian, but so excited to be doing it in the beautiful setting of St Cuthbert's Chapel at Ushaw College just outside Durham.
In the introduction to the New Novello Choral Edition of the piece, Stuart Campbell refers to the All Night Vigil being "testimony to the genius of a great composer" and Rachmaninov's "greatest essay in the composition of church music."
Popularly, but erroneously, known as the "Vespers", the All Night Vigil in fact comprises the Orthodox office of vespers followed by that of matins and is often celebrated on the eve of great feasts in the church's calendar. Our audience will be relieved to know that in modern performances it does not generally last all night!
Rachmaninov's All Night Vigil was first performed in Moscow in 1915. It is undoubtedly a masterpiece and one which requires a huge amount of stamina on the part of the choir. To make life extra difficult, the piece does not follow traditional bar lines but has a much more rhythmic freedom similar to earlier plain chant. It is written for an unaccompanied four-part choir, complete with basso profondo. (Russian conductor, Danilin, is reputed to have said on first hearing the piece, "Now where on earth are we to find such basses? They are as rare as asparagus at Christmas!" Fenham Ensemble however, has just such a bass in Roland Tate and with a few extra glasses of vodka, who knows how low he can go!).
In many movements, there is three-, five-, six-, or eight-part harmony; at one point in the seventh movement, the choir is divided into eleven parts. There are solos for alto and tenor performed beautifully by Mary Holmes and Miles Wallis-Clarke respectively.
Rachmaninov's All Night Vigil, Ushaw College, Durham, Saturday 24th November, 7pm. Tickets £10 from Ushawboxoffice.com or on the door.