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Rachmaninov: All-Night Vigil / Bruffy

Bruffy,Charles / Phoenix Chorale / Kansas City Release Date: 03/10/2015
Label: Chandos Catalog #: 5148 Spars Code: DDD
Composer:  Sergei Rachmaninov Performer:  Bryan Taylor ,  Bryan Pinkall ,  Paul Davidson ,  Frank Fleschner  ...  Conductor:  Charles Bruffy Orchestra/Ensemble:  Kansas City Chorale ,  Phoenix Chorale Number of Discs: 1

This is a hybrid Super Audio CD playable on both regular and Super Audio CD players.

Anyone familiar with this repertoire, so intimately associated with Russian culture and religious tradition, who happened to be looking for an exemplary recording, might understandably assume that the ideal performance would be owned by a Russian church or concert choir; after all, these groups, theoretically at least, possess both the singular vocal quality and practiced technique, along with the inherent interpretive understanding, to set the standard for all others. This new recording from Charles Bruffy and his combined Phoenix and Kansas City Chorales not only destroys any such notion, but stands
Read more both as the All-night Vigil’s reference–a stunning rendition a world apart from any other recording of the work–and as a major achievement in the history of choral recordings.

That judgment is derived from decades-long listening to thousands of choral recordings, and, in this specific case, a comparison of the current release with more than a dozen past recordings of the All-night Vigil–from the St. Petersburg Chamber Choir, Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, and USSR Ministry of Culture Chamber Choir (along with assorted other Russian ensembles) to the Robert Shaw Festival Singers and very fine choirs from Finland, Latvia, the Czech Republic, and Sweden; and in each instance, the difference is not subtle. Less than one minute into this new recording you know you’re in a world unlike any other for this work.

First, this performance begins with introits by Deacon and Priest–most recordings eliminate this, but without this brief intro the opening chorus has an unsettling and liturgically weird abruptness; and in spite of the fact that their names are Bryan Taylor and Paul Davidson, Bruffy’s two bass soloists are as Slavic-sounding as you’ll hear on on any Russian recording. And when you hear those interpolated low-Cs in the opening choral “Amen”, well, you know there’s no longer any distance, musically speaking, between Moscow (where this work was premiered–in 1915 by the Moscow Synod Choir) and Kansas City, Kansas (where this recording was made).

And somehow, the sound of this 56-voice choir, captured in Kansas City’s Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle, creates a strangely affecting resonance, vibrant, timeless, eternally echoing. I have no idea how the performers and recording engineers achieved this sound–all other recordings of the work pale in comparison–but at least part of it must be attributed to the large and formidable bass section (16 voices), the nearly as large (15 voices) tenor section, and to Bruffy’s insistence on giving full flower to the glorious harmonies–to not rushing the tempo, which (aside from shady, stuffy, or spongy sound) is the primary problem with virtually all the other competing recordings.

Yes, some listeners may point to exactly that–tempos–much slower-than-usual tempos in some movements–as a criticism of this performance (the well-loved “Bogoroditse Devo”, for instance). But if ever there were music that compelled the performers to take time, to extend the breath, to be magnanimous with the phrase, to revel in harmonic resonance, this is it; and Bruffy has the will and the means (those 56 exceptional voices) to do it. As you listen, absorbed in the music’s luxurious sound and the performance’s stirring effect, you realize that there are not so many recordings, nor are there so many musical works that are able to hold you so thoroughly enthralled from beginning to end. (And it’s a rare choral recording that makes you wish for, or happier to have, a subwoofer attached to your sound system!) As the choir sings the Vigil’s opening section, “Come, let us worship…”, one can only respond, “Absolutely.” Not to be missed.

– David Vernier,

"***** (5 stars) Among the most beautiful of all works for unaccompanied chorus, [the All-Night Vigil] turns away from temporal conflict and gazes calmly into eternity.... The US conductor Charles Bruffy and the Phoenix and Kansas City Chorales have long been outstanding interpreters of this repertory and their performance has a devotional intensity that is often overwhelming. … [B]y the end, you know exactly why it [is] one of Rachmaninov’s favourites among his own works, and why many consider it his greatest." – The Guardian (UK) Read less