Meeting the Challenge Bach Society Masters Rachmaninoff's Ethereal `Vespers'

Article excerpt

THE "Vespers" by Rachmaninoff has always been considered one of his finest works. It is a collection of various sections of the liturgies of the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches that are used during the all-night vigils that precede major church festival days.

Divided into two parts - "Evening Prayer" and "Morning Prayer" - the 15 texts survey the history of Christianity from creation to resurrection. The settings for unaccompanied chorus are based on traditional and, in most cases, ancient Greek and Slavic chant melodies from the 15th century and before.

The Bach Society of St. Louis took on this liturgical masterpiece Sunday night in The Cathedral of St. Louis and on the same day as the celebration of the Eastern Orthodox Easter. They met the many challenges of this work, not the least of which was singing in Russian. In fact, everyone seemed right at home with both the ethereal style and rugged spirit of this typically Eastern European music. The melodies Rachmaninoff uses do not contain many wide leaps, moving slowly from one level to the next. Initially they appear to be static and a bit simple, but closer inspection reveals a wealth of contrapuntal and rhythmic subtleties, tonal shadings and dynamic variations that make for the rich texture of each piece. …