Although 1993 is the 50th anniversary of the death of Sergei Rachmaninov and although he was one of the 20th century's greatest composers, there has been little in the way of celebration this year. Whether this is because the composer's powerful (and ever growing) grip on the standard repertory makes celebration unnecessary or because Rachmaninov's unreconstructed romanticism continues to make him unfashionable is impossible to say.
It is with qualified gratitude, therefore, that one heard the Baltimore Choral Arts Society and its music director, Tom Hall, celebrate Rachmaninov last night at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen with a performance of his "Vespers." One says "qualified" because this listener -- while he adores most of the composer's music -- finds the "Vespers" a hard nut to crack. Written in 1915 -- just after such masterpieces as the Third Piano Concerto and "The Bells" -- it is unquestionably a masterpiece of liturgical writing. It is also for chorus alone and it lasts about 70 minutes.
Of the great sacred services in European music -- whether those of Verdi, Beethoven, Mozart or Bloch -- Rachmaninov's demands the most in the way of devotion: not only devotion to this composer's music, but also devotion to liturgical settings, devotion to the sound of the Russian language and devotion to the art of choral singing. The composer's "choral orchestration" -- his dynamic shadings, his contrasting or drawing together of different registers and his ability to construct opulent choral climaxes -- has never been enough to sustain even this Rachmaninov lover's interest.
Unfortunately, Hall made matters a little worse with what must have seemed a very good idea. Although the "Vespers" was written as a concert work, it is suitable for liturgical use. And instead of the prayers, litanies and scriptural readings that would have broken up performance in a church service, several local poets were invited to compose appropriate poems for the occasion. While a few of these poems were interesting -- particularly A. V. Christie's "Darwin Crosses the Andes" -- this simply made an already long work even longer.
The performance itself was outstanding. Hall understands this work and drew beautiful work from his choristers. While no Western European or American choir -- not even the Robert Shaw festival singers on Shaw's splendid Telarc recording -- possesses the dark timbres associated with Russian choruses, the members of Hall's society sang convincingly and created the appropriate atmosphere. John Weber also sang the tenor solos with purity and eloquence.
The one quibble is that Hall -- as Shaw does on his recording -- concluded the work fortissimo instead of with the composer's prescribed pianissimo ending. Rachmaninov may have had his faults, but there were two things he knew how to do with unfailing genius. One of them was how to play the piano, and the other was how to end a piece.