Tonight I’ve been listening to the amazing recording of Rachmaninov’s “All Night Vigil” (commonly known as his “Vespers”) by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, conducted by Paul Hillier. It has that “Russian sound,” with the very deep basses and a peculiar (but not unpleasant) chorus sound often found in slavic groups. Rachmaninov’s choral work is completely unaccompanied and requires a double chorus divided into many parts. It is not a piece for a small choir or one that is not secure in its pitch. The virtuoso Estonian choir has performed music by Arvo Pärt and Veljo Tormis, among many other composers. They are one of the world’s great choruses; nothing seems too hard for them.
The Rachmaninov “Vespers” has, of course, been recorded by many fine conductors and choruses, including Robert Shaw and his Festival Singers (Telarc), and a very unusual sounding but arresting recording by the men and boy choir from King’s College, Cambridge, with Stephen Cleobury. (I once read an interview with Cleobury that he chose the Vespers because that particular year he had a good crop of low basses in the King’s choir.) There are many more, but these are three of my favorites. If you don’t know this music, I recommend it.