Grechaninov: Vespers (CD Review - Gramophone Magazine,1999)

Grechaninov's music has, in recent years, begun once more to be performed and recorded as it deserves. There are excellent recent discs available of several of his Liturgies (including the famous Liturgia Domestica), Masses, the oratorio The Seven Days of the Passion and now also his orchestral music. The All-Night Vigil is an outstanding achievement.

Like Rachmaninov's famous setting (more familiarly, though incorrectly, known as the 'Vespers'), it is a selection of texts from the services of Vespers and Matins celebrated as a Vigil, though in current parish practice this lasts rather less than an entire night. Grechaninov sets fewer texts: the total duration of the work is just over 47 minutes. Here we find the sustained chordal writing and slow-moving melodies oscillating around a few notes familiar from Rachmaninov, but Grechaninov has his own distinctive harmonic vocabulary, and his writing is much less text-driven.

Chant is an inspiration, but is also used in a different way from Rachmaninov: none is quoted in its entirety, the composer preferring instead to use fragments of various chants which are combined and juxtaposed with considerable freedom (it is not certain whether the work was intended for liturgical use or not). He is a master of texture: listen to the astonishing darkness of sound produced by the scoring for lower voices in Ot yunosti moyeya, for example. Overall there is a feeling of luminosity in the writing, however, as well as an undeniable grandeur, to which the exclusive use of brilliant major keys contributes greatly.

To round off the disc we are given three other liturgical works, including a dramatic setting of the Beatitudes (sung at the Divine Liturgy) with James Bowman as soloist ‚ hearing his voice in this context inevitably reminds one of his recording of this composer's Creed made many years ago for Decca. The Holst Singers under Stephen Layton are superb: they have a complete mastery of the style and the fine, rich choral timbre which the music demands. Very highly recommended.

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