on May 7, 2004
I was one of the 59 hand-picked voices that formed the 1989 Robert Shaw Festival Singers.
The emotional intensity of making this recording with Shaw was so overwhelming that I had to distance myself from this music for nearly a decade. Only within the last five years have I begun to listen to the recording again, stunned at its power, overwhelmed by the artistry Shaw brought to it, and convinced that the spirit of Sergei himself was present in that 12th-century cathedral in Gramat, France, on that hot, late July evening 15 years ago, when we recorded this masterpiece in a mere four hours. Something, some guiding presence (besides the all-too-intimidating Shaw himself) was in the room, and all of us felt it.
The recording has flaws. But not a lot of them. We learned the music in five days, rehearsed it in 95 degree temperatures with minimal ventilation (fans 'bothered Shaw's ears'), and got one day off (France's bicentennial Bastille Day) the entire month we were there. Shaw was relentless, demanding, moody, and distant. Did I resent it then? Yes. Do I look back and revere him and what he strove for now? Yes. Am I about as proud of this as anything I've ever been involved in? Yes again, a thousand times over. This recording is as fine as choral singing gets.
on August 2, 2002
In the world of Choral Music, there are two types of people: those who are Robert Shaw fans and those who aren't. If you, like myself, are in the former you will find this recording ranks in one of the Maestro's ten best albums. If you are in the latter category I challenge you to find another recording of Rachmaninoff's gorgeous All-Night Vigil that even compares to the Shaw version.
The festival chorus, one of Shaw's auditioned ensembles comprised of teachers, singers, conductors, and students shines in this hour long mass. The Rachmaninoff is one of the hardest choral works to perform as it is scored for usualy eight part (although greater in some movements), a cappella chorus. A cappella music of this magnitude is rarely performed these days, especially with American choirs due to the inability to hold a key center without the aid of a piano. First soprano lines that require carefree sighing of high A's and B's while second bass line (written specifically for Russian basses) that sit as low as a B-flat make this one of the least accessable choral scores ever written. After listening to Robert Shaw's recording, however, you would think that any church choir could pick up and perform this monster.
This is truly a landmark in choral music and Robert Shaw fan or not, you will not find a better recording of this work.
on June 30, 2002
I have two recordings of Rachmaninov's gorgeous Vespers, this one and the 1999 King's College Choir version (also avaialable on amazon.com). Both recordings are excellent, but this one from the Robert Shaw Festival Singers is my clear favorite. Much as I love the sound of King's, in this case the performance of the Festival Singers is so assured and inspiring -- nearly ethereal -- that I can't help but find the King's version slightly dull in comparison. Beyond the gorgeous singing and fabulous solo work on this disc, the music itself is truly one of the finest liturgical works of the 20th century. Imagine a darkened, candle-lit Russian church on a quiet evening, with the choir performing this music, and it is easy to see how even the most hardened atheist could be inspired by it. The inherent spirituality of this music is beautifully expressed by the Singers, who sound as though they feel every note and rhythm and believe every word they sing. I am not very familiar with Rachmaninov's music so I can't offer any deep analysis of the music except to say that I truly and thoroughly enjoy it and cannot imagine anyone who loves choral music being disappointed with this recording of it. If you are looking to purchase a recording of unusual beauty that will be enjoyed time and time again, this is definitely one to go for.
on June 30, 2002
I have two recordings of Rachmaninov's gorgeous Vespers, this one and the 1999 King's College Choir version (also avaialable on amazon.com). Both recordings are excellent, but this one from the Robert Shaw Festival Singers is my clear favorite. Much as I love the sound of King's, in this case the performance of the Festival Singers is so assured and inspiring -- nearly ethereal -- that I can't help but find the King's version slightly dull in comparison. Beyond the gorgeous singing and fabulous solo work on this disc, the music itself is truly one of the finest liturgical works of the 20th century. Imagine a darkened, candle-light Russian church on a quiet evening, with the choir performing this music, and it is easy to see how even the most hardened atheist could be inspired by it. The inherent spirituality of this music is beautifully expressed by the Singers, who sound as though they feel every note and rhythm and believe every word they sing. I am not very familiar with Rachmaninov's music so I can't offer any deep analysis of the music except to say that I truly and thoroughly enjoy it and cannot imagine anyone who loves choral music being disappointed with this recording of it. If you are looking to purchase a recording of unusual beauty that will be enjoyed time and time again, this is definitely one to go for.
on May 2, 2001
Whoever said that this performance "sucks" and blatantly disregards/ignores the score is plain _wrong_!
To begin with, having the alto solo taken over by part of the choir-section is in all likelihood what the composer would have accepted as an 'ossia', just like he does for the tenor solo parts later on (which are quite beautifully sung, even if the sound may not be 100% idiomatic, which anyway is a matter of taste). Secondly, the placement of the choir is indeed quite recessed, but at no point is the diction, the music or the outstanding choral sound compromised. Thirdly, the very slowness of Shaw's interpretation (compared to the samples I tried out of Cleobury, Rostropóvich, Chernushénko, Boródina, and Poljánsky) lends an air of deep mysticism to this work - and, following with the score (as well as having at least some direct knowledge of both Russian and - as in this case - old Church Slavonic) I see nothing otherwise disregarded. Overall a matter of taste. Sure, go ahead and get at least one of the others (in the above list), but Shaw's recording most certainly has every claim to be an equal to those overall and deserves to be in every CD library.
on March 1, 2001
I read the scattered unfavorable comments below, and I don't understand. Sure, this is not your loose, hearty, vodka-besotted sounding Russki chorus yelling and flailing away in minimal togetherness, often with the sense that hitting the tonal center of a note is an option not willingly exercised. Shaw and his very Western chorus have taken this simple music, cleaned it up, taught it manners, and rendered it at a level of profundity that I have never heard matched anywhere else. It's the first and only time I really sat still for this music. A Grammy winner, yes, but don't hold that against this recording. The engineering really is spectacular, the choral singing incredibly fine, a single voice, a single soul, frankly united ineffably in the business of giving glory to God. If you like CDs like "Chant" and other early choral music collections, give this one a try. This isn't the Rachmaninoff of the symphonies and the piano concerti (although some of the harmonic progressions could only have been written by him). This is the Rachmaninoff of the Russian soul. And like "Chant," it'll be in your CD player often, and you may even find that it supersedes the rest of your ecclesiastical collection!
on May 2, 1999
This CD has some good points. Intonation is impeccable throughout (a rare achievement in this work). The tenor soloist is excellent. The booklet gives full texts.
However, I was very disappointed overall. The first problem is the recording. It sounds as if the choir is half a mile away and possibly underwater. No doubt Telarc wanted an "atmospheric" quality to the sound, but they went way over the top.
Another problem is Shaw's bizarre decision to give the alto solo in the 2nd movement to the full choir. What on earth was the justification for this? Did he want to save on the cost of hiring a soloist? The entry of the solo singer is one of the most moving moments in the whole piece: I felt really short-changed by its absence.
The biggest problem is the total lack of passion or liveliness in Shaw's direction. He has two speeds: dead slow and slower. Some of Rachmaninov's masterwork responds well to this treatment. At other places I was gnashing my teeth in frustration. Rachmaninov's Vespers should be so much more than a cure for insomnia. Don't buy this CD.
on January 18, 2000
While there are numerous recordings of Rachmaninov's Vespers, this one stands out as one of the best. The diction is good. Intonation is surprisingly good (considering most choirs have trouble). The blend of voices is superior, but the basses should be brought out more. Looking at this recording from a liturgical standpoint, there are a few things I have a problem with. First off, the tempi are too slow. Apparently, Shaw seems enjoying going from slow to slower. Second is the tenor soloist. One thing Russian Orthodox voices were known for was their soft, mellow, and angelic quality and not for their operatic tenors. The third is rhythm. In Russian Liturgical Music, rhythm is determined by the text (so time signatures in essence are useless). If they had followed the text more closely, the songs would sound even less "sectioned" and flow together even more seamlessly. Aside from these points, Shaw did an excellent job with this work.
on December 16, 2001
The Rachmaninoff Vespers performance by Robert Shaw and his choral group was recorded at a small church in Quercy, France. Shaw hosted this workshop annually, and some of his finest choral recordings are a result of the talent and musicianship of all involved. I have personally given this album as a birthday gift to both friends and family who can appreciated fine choral singing. This recording is worth the price alone for Karl Dent's solos---unimaginably beautiful singing. Not only is the quality of the singing excellent, the recording quality itself is another example of the Telarc engineers' efforts to produce a crytalline but warm reproduction of the venue.
This recording should be considered a reference performance of this body of work. I don't speak Russian, but I can feel the devotion of the singers to not only the text but the intent of the words. Take the time to enjoy this--you will be listening to it time and again.
on March 20, 2002
This work is recorded in a fine performance here. Anyone who has never heard Rachmaninov's Vespers will find it to be of interest; Rachmaninov is not alone among the great Russian composers in having dipped his toe into liturgical waters.
Alas, the title given here is simply inaccurate. The Russian Orthodox Liturgy is *not* a "mass," but is the product of an entirely separate religious tradition from that of the Roman Catholics. The Orthodox Liturgy is never referred to as a mass because the roles of the priest and the laity, as well as the action itself, are understood by the Orthodox in an entirely different way from the Western understanding of the mass. How difficult would it be to put the word "Liturgy" on the case??
Still, this is wonderful music; it makes one want to head off to Church "now that we have come to the setting of the sun...."