I first heard Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “All-Night Vigil,” better known as the Vespers, when I was listening to classical radio station KXTR in high school.
Every year, KXTR would end Christmas Day by playing a wonderful recording of the Vespers by a Soviet all-male choir. I was mesmerized by the rumbling Russian basses, the glowing harmonies and ecstatic, full-throated singing. The music was redolent of frankincense, candlelight and golden, Orthodox icons.
Now the Kansas City Chorale and the Phoenix Chorale will not only record Rachmaninoff’s Vespers but also give a public performance of the work. Charles Bruffy, artistic director of both ensembles, will conduct the Russian masterpiece Friday night at Redemptorist Church in midtown.
Rachmaninoff composed his “All-Night Vigil” over a two-week period in January and February in 1915, and it received its first performance at a benefit concert for Russia’s war effort in March of that year.
Even though Rachmaninoff is most famous for piano compositions, the Vespers is considered one of his greatest works. Along with “The Bells,” the Vespers was one of Rachmaninoff’s favorites, and he requested that a movement of it be played at his funeral.
Two years after the Vespers first was performed, the Bolshevik revolution upturned Russia’s cultural life, and performances of religious music were banned. It wasn’t until 1965 that the Soviet record company, Melodiya, was allowed to release its now-legendary recording with Alexander Sveshnikov conducting the State Academic Russian Choir of the USSR.
“In that recording you can hear the relief that freedom gives,” Bruffy said. “Those people had been squashed for so long, and then to have been given an opportunity to make this recording out of special dispensation after having had such repression, it sounds really emotional and sincere.
“But it also sounds kind of bumpy. You have to wonder, is that really what Rachmaninoff had in mind? It sounds very Soviet. It sounds like they are singing as they march in flanks.”
Bruffy has special insight into Russian choral music, having made it a defining part of his musical career.
In 1988, during his first season as music director of the Kansas City Chorale, he conducted a revelatory concert of Russian music, and he has subsequently conducted highly acclaimed recordings of Russian choral music, including Rachmaninoff’s Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom and Passion Week by Alexander Grechaninov, the latter a Grammy Award-winner.
“We recorded the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom quite early in my career and my musical evolution,” Bruffy said. “The Vespers seems to be more monumental than the liturgy was. It seems to hold up much better as a whole.
“It’s like singing one 70-minute song. It’s pretty monumental just in terms of endurance of the voice, the heart and spirit and, quite frankly, your feet.”
It’s quite remarkable that the Kansas City Chorale, a choral ensemble from the heart of America, has garnered such rave reviews for its recordings of Russian choral music. Certainly a large part of the credit goes to Bruffy’s dogged determination to make sure his performances are as authentic as possible, not just in pronunciation but also in the way the music is interpreted.
“One thing that I have tried to be very conscientious about is being sure what Rachmaninoff’s editorial marks mean,” Bruffy said. “For example, our 21st century middle-American eye sees an accent and we execute a note that almost has a bang at the beginning of it, but historically and especially in the East is that really what is meant to happen?
“Or does the accent mean perhaps mean more of an internal nudge versus having the bang at the beginning? In the end, without making contact with Rachmaninoff through the Ouija board, all we can do is listen and see if it makes sense.”
It’s also the singers that give Bruffy’s recordings an authentic Russian sound, especially his superb basses. Nicolai Danilin, who conducted the first performance of the Vespers, asked Rachmaninoff, “Now where on Earth are we to find such basses? They are as rare as asparagus at Christmas.”
Well, Bruffy has found a whole bushel of basses.
“We usually have eight low basses in both choirs, and we’ve added even more,” Bruffy said, “and we have them sing all the time and sing loudly. I tell them, anything below an A, sing loud. If you’re up in the texture with the chorus, then blend in with them, but lower means louder, that’s what I always tell them.”
Following Friday night’s performance, Bruffy and his two chorales will spend three days at St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Kansas City, Kan., recording the Vespers for the British music label Chandos. Bruffy expects the CD to be released early next year.
The concert Friday night will be a wonderful opportunity to whet your appetite for the CD to come. In even the largest cities, excellent performances of Russian choral music are rare. We’re lucky to have world-class interpreters of this glorious repertoire right here in Kansas City.
“The scary part in our society is that I’m not sure how many people are completely interested in the opportunity to find calm and to immerse themselves in beauty,” Bruffy said. “There aren’t any electronic flashing lights or the backbeat of Eminem.
“Another downside is that the texts are completely religious, but no matter what your beliefs are, the structure and passion of this music is compelling enough. And while it’s called the “All-Night Vigil,” no one needs to get nervous. It does not last all night.”
7:30 p.m. Friday. Redemptorist Church, 3333 Broadway. $10-$30. 816-235-6222 or kcchorale.org.