Rachmaninov Vespers, May 2008


Sunday’s performance was dedicated to the memory of the late J. Finlay Squires, a stalwart of the bass section in the Stonehaven Chorus. What better music to remember him by than Rachmaninov’s Vespers. His rich basso profundo voice was, as the programme said, such an asset when the Chorus performed movements from the Vespers at past concerts. On Sunday, however, the Stonehaven Chorus performed the Vespers (properly titled the All Night Vigil) in virtually its glorious entirety.

Under the direction of conductor Dr John Hearne, the Chorus has gained renown both far and wide for the adventurousness of its performances, singing music that most other choirs have hardly heard of let alone would dare to perform. Nothing seems too much of a challenge for this gifted choir. The All Night Vigil, as its title suggests, is a vast undertaking, but nothing daunted, the choir sang the entire work in its original Russian Text. Surely no other choir in the country can boast such a list of performances in so many different and difficult languages. Musically, Sunday’s effort was a tremendous achievement. Every part came through with admirably clarity and although a real Russian chorus could probably have fielded more thunderously deep bass voices, the Stonehaven Chorus did remarkably well on that account. There are a couple of voices among both the tenor and soprano sections that have “a bit of an edge” to them. For some music, this might be a problem but for this music, the piquancy that they gave to the overall choral texture was just perfect as anyone who has ever thrilled to the sounds of a real Russian choir will understand. Rachmaninov’s stunning vocal contrasts between male and female voices or sopranos with tenors or again the magnificence of the full chorus exploding in the rich colours of multiple part harmonies were all truly gorgeous. In the final fifteenth section of the work too, the Chorus sounded every bit as fresh as they had at the start of this wonderfully atmospheric musical journey.

Two superb soloists stamped their top quality singing on the Vespers. They were mezzo-soprano Lilly Papaioannou making her third appearance with the Chorus and tenor Iain Milne. Lilly laid her stunningly rich dark vocal tones over Благослои, душе моя (Praise the Lord, O My Soul), quite astonishing and wholly delightful too. Iain Milne had a couple of heroic contributions, even gifting his wonderful tenor voice to the choir itself for the final section of the work. Given that the soloists had only limited contributions to the main work, they also provided us with three solo songs each to punctuate the Vespers. Iain’s three songs by Rachmaninov, beautifully sung, remained perfectly in keeping with the main work. Lilly’s offering of two of the “Sea Pictures” by Elgar and “Silent Noon” by Vaughan Williams were perhaps not entirely in keeping with the main programme, but since these favourite English songs were sung with such stunning artistry by what must be one of the finest mezzo voices in the business today, I for one was not complaining.