by Michael Caruso
The past two Sunday afternoons, Oct. 27 and Nov. 3, offered local music lovers the rare opportunity of hearing two glorious examples of sacred choral music in excellent performances. The first featured the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, under the direction of acting artistic director John Leonard, singing Sergei Rachmaninoff’s masterpiece, the “All-Night Vigil.” The second offered the Adult Choir of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, performing the “Requiem Mass” of Maurice Durufle as part of a Choral Eucharist Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (All Souls Day, which falls on Nov. 2).
Unlike All Saints Day, Nov. 1, which is celebrated to one degree or another by almost all Christian churches, the practice of marking All Souls Day fell out of favor with many Protestant churches at the time of the 16th century Reformation. As a result of the 19th century Anglo-Catholic Oxford Movement, however, many dioceses and parishes in the Church of England and the worldwide Anglican Communion revived their liturgies of the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed and began incorporating the music of Roman Latin Requiem Catholic Mass settings into those liturgies.
Maurice Durufle’s 1947 musical arrangement of the Latin “Mass for the Dead” has become one of the most frequently sung versions at such commemorations. Based almost entirely on Gregorian chant and harmonized exclusively in the modal harmonies implied by medieval plainsong, Durufle’s “Requiem” is one of the most reflective works in the repertoire.
It’s overwhelmingly set within the softest dynamic levels, which makes it very difficult to sing because maintaining pitch is much more challenging when a choir sings quietly rather than when it sings loudly. And most choristers are unfamiliar with the melodic contours and modal chords of medieval music, making it all the more daunting, still.
All the same, the Adult Choir of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, under the leadership of music director Andrew Kotylo, rose to that musical challenge Sunday afternoon and gave the score an emotionally compelling and spiritually uplifting interpretation. The big moments were unquestionably impressive for their controlled intensity and focused potency. Even more memorable, however, were the many softer passages that were projected efficaciously at a whisper to envelop the listener in an embrace of intimate revelation. Organ scholar Emily Amos and former organ scholar Joseph Russell were on hand to provide the composer’s original accompaniment.
St. Paul’s Church will present the second of this season’s “Five Fridays” fundraising recitals Nov. 8, at 7:30 p.m. The featured artist will be pianist Zhenni Li. Visit FiveFridays.org for ticket information.
To read the word “masterpiece” connected to Sergei Rachmaninoff in regard to a non-piano score may come as a surprise to many classical music lovers. The great Russian musician, who lived from 1873 until 1943, is best known as a composer of four piano concerti plus the “Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini” for Piano & Orchestra, as well as a host of splendid works for solo piano. He also wrote two symphonies — the Second and Third — which have long occupied a beloved place in the standard repertoire. His greatest orchestral work, however, is his “Symphonic Dances,” which he dedicated to Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
But right on the cusp of the 1917 Russian Revolution — 1915, to be precise — Rachmaninoff composed an unaccompanied choral setting of the “All-Night Vigil” of the Russian Orthodox Church. Even before the collapse of a broad swath of the culture of Czarist Russia, the composer knew that the score probably wouldn’t be performed all that frequently due to the arch conservatism of the Russian Orthodox clergy. He was, of course, correct. Even before the Romanovs were overthrown, both his and Tchaikovsky’s “All-Night Vigil” were considered too operatic for ecclesiastical traditionalists yet not sufficiently modern for aristocratic concertgoers.
Unlike sacred choral music for the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Protestant and even Greek Orthodox Churches, the liturgical music of the Russian Orthodox Church is not accompanied by instruments of any kind, even the organ. It, therefore, retains an extremely close relationship with the ancient Byzantine chant of the Greek Orthodox Church centered in Constantinople, which accomplished the conversion of the Emperor Vladimir of the Kyivan Rus in 988 A.D. and the establishment of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Much like Tchaikovsky before him, Rachmaninoff combined the ancient Roman liturgies of “Vespers” and “Matins” to produce the “All-Night Vigil” of any number of holy days but most importantly of Easter. Divided into 15 movements based on scriptural readings and traditional prayers, its texts lead the listener from the evening of one day into the morning of the next.
Rachmaninoff chose to base the music of the “All-Night Vigil” either on actual Byzantine/Russian chant melodies or those of his own composition in the style of the older motifs. Not eschewing the chromatic harmonies of his secular music but rather embracing it, the result is a rich, complex, multi-layered texture of choral music that flows across its texts in a conceptually unbroken river of sound that encompasses the height and depth of the human voice.
Clocking in at approximately 65 minutes, the “All-Night Vigil” poses a grueling gauntlet to perform for even the most seasoned and professionally trained choir of a Russian Orthodox cathedral. With only 12 paid professionals among his nearly 100 choristers, John Leonard’s moving interpretation and masterful rendition of the score was miraculous. The Mendelssohn Club sang with consummate technical polish and powerful emotional projection. I can’t say for sure, but the choir’s Old Church Slavonic sounded authentic to me. Balance, blend, tuning, dynamics and phrasing were all superb. And Leonard maintained a through-line of thematic development throughout the music’s length that sustained its haunting spirituality.
Perhaps most impressive of all was the chorus’ ability to fill the sometimes muffled expanse of the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral (Church of the Savior) in West Philadelphia. The Cathedral’s stripped down interior lacks the ability to invest the singing with the level of acoustical bloom choirs dream of. A more commodious choice of venue might have been either St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church just west of Rittenhouse Square in Center City Philadelphia or the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception at 830 N. Franklin St. in Northern Liberties.
Music director Michael Smith will conduct the Choir of the Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, Whitemarsh, in a performance of Benjamin Britten’s “Rejoice in the Lamb,” accompanied by orchestra, and John Ireland’s “Greater love hath no man” Sunday, Nov. 10, at 5 p.m. Visit StThomasChurch.org for more information.
Pennsylvania Ballet will present a program of three world premieres from Nov. 7-10 in the Merriam Theater. Works by Garrett Smith, Juliano Nunes & Yin Yue will be danced by the local troupe for the first time anywhere. Visit PABallet.org for ticket information.