Vespers is still a very popular and widely performed work of classical music. It’s composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) was the last (the very last) composer from the so-called “romantic” age of classical music who lived just long enough to see recording technology arrive. Considered the greatest pianist of his time, Rachmaninoff wrote symphonies, concertos, and several works of Russian Orthodox influenced choral music which include Vespers and his Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Compared to other Russian composers such as Tchaikovsky or Rimsky-Korsakov, his artistic accomplishments are fewer in number as his creative energies were affected first by severe depression, and then by the upheavals of the 1917 Russian Revolution which forced him to flee Russia from where he eventually came to settle in the United States.
The entirety of Vespers was composed by Rachmaninoff in less than two weeks during January and February 1915 after which it premiered in Moscow on March 10 of that year. It is considered one of the greatest musical achievements of Russian classical music. Vespers is sung a capella and consists of choral settings of prayer taken from the Russian Orthodox all-night vigil service. The language used is not Russian, but rather Church Slavonic which is the liturgical language of the Russian Church and several other eastern churches. This part “Bless the Lord, O my Soul” is adapted from Psalm 103 in the Book of Psalms as found in the Holy Bible (Psalm 104 in the Hebrew numbering).
This particular recording is notable for several reasons among which is the fact that Vespers is seen as the greatest and last achievement of Russian liturgical music, and it represents the definite end of an era. The Russian Revolution erupted two years later in 1917 after which public performances of religious music were banned for the next 70 years as the Communist government tried to erase religious faith by heavily persecuting the Church and its believers. As a consequence, Rachmaninoff’s Vespers was never again performed in public on Russian soil until after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
This very first recording of Vespers was made in 1965 by Alexander Sveshnikov conducting the USSR Academic Russian Choir for the Soviet Melodiya label. The recording was permitted for academic purposes and was never allowed to be released inside the Soviet Union. Despite this, word of its existence leaked out. The recording still has a legendary reputation, in part because of its extremely strong low basses, but also because of the solos by mezzo-soprano Klara Korkan and tenor Konstantin Ognevoi. The Sveshnikov recording was first released in the United States in 1973 on the Melodiya-Angel label. The March 1974 Stereo Review noted that Angel’s general manager Robert E. Myers “tracked down the recording” and “had to prevail rather heavily on the Soviet powers that be to make it part of their trade agreement with Angel”.
Vespers was one of Rachmaninoff’s two favorite compositions along with The Bells, and the composer requested that one of its movements (the fifth) be sung at his funeral which took place in 1943.
While listening to this piece, the second of fifteen movements, I’m always struck by the thought that most, if not all, of the choir members were probably non-believers. Now close your eyes and enjoy this masterpiece of pre-revolutionary Russian choral music. It’s best listened to with headphones to catch all the subtlety and texture.
Sergei Rachmaninoff, Vespers (1915) 2nd Movement. Includes titles in English