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Review: Royal Northern Sinfonia Chorus - Sunset in Russia at the Sage Gateshead

Singers of the Royal Northern Sinfonia Chorus give memorable Late Mix performance of Rachmaninov's Vespers

The Sage Gateshead
The Sage Gateshead

The singers of the Chorus of Royal Northern Sinfonia are, unsurprisingly, most often heard supporting their orchestra.

Here they were let off the leash to sing unaccompanied in a memorable performance of Sergei Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil service, or Vespers as it is usually known.

A good choice for a Late Mix event, the nature of the work lends itself to a quiet, intimate and darkened space in the later evening, as would have been the case with such a service, performed during the night preceding a major religious feast.

The work’s place in history is assured due to its being written just two years before the Russian Revolution of 1917 condemned religious music.

It is seen as representing the end of an era. Split into 15 short, contrasting movements, its influences include the Russian tradition of Byzantine and Orthodox chant with the composer, not a religious man, writing what he called “conscious counterfeits” of existing musical expression.

To the listener, it just represents the very soul of Orthodox religion in the easily identifiable and magnificently tuneful Russian choral manner.

Rachmaninov said that he wrote with the voices of his countrymen in mind.

Included in this is the specific ability to hit basso profundo notes of which a lighter bass singer such as I can only dream.

The bass singers of the Chorus not only hit these notes, but the entire ensemble gave a clear, clean and passionate performance in the Russian style, with the number of written parts ranging from the traditional four to 11 at one point.

Experienced choral conductor Edward Caswell gave the singers two short breaks during the performance, which will have helped not only the singers but also the packed audience in shifting its attention from one choral focal point to another as the all-night vigil service progressed.

Whilst admitting to being influenced by existing styles and also his predecessors, notably Tchaikovsky, it was Rachmaninov who perfected the art of bringing these styles and conventions together in one impressive and coherent masterwork.

Fine performances such as this only reinforce that notion.

Rob Barnes


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