Rachmaninov loved the Orthodox liturgy. His Vespers was one of his favourite compositions. Critics have described it as his “deepest composition” and “one of the greatest works of Orthodoxy.” He wrote and performed it in early 1915, as the Russian People bled to death in the First World War, under the atrocious conditions Solzhenitsyn depicts in August 1914. Rachmaninov so loved his Vespers, that he requested its fifth prayer, Shimon (Simeon)’s nunc dimittis, (“Now let Thou, Thy servant depart in peace,”) be sung at his own funeral.
The nunc dimittis’ closing words are “To be a light to lighten the Gentiles : and to be the glory of thy people Israel.” Rachmaninov, to light up this parting, gives his basses a descending scale, plummeting, at its very end, so low – to B flat, three octaves below middle C ! – that Rachmaninov’s original conductor Nikolai Danilin was shocked. “Where on earth will we find such basses?” he asked, adding “They are as rare as asparagus at Xmas time!” Later Rachmaninov proudly reported “Yet he found them. I know the voice of my People.”
The Voice of the French People, Le Choeur de Radio France, bravely took on the challenge of this very demanding work last night, the Vigil before the Feast of Lights. And they illuminated the text with warmth, passion and, above all, real prayer. Swiss conductor Nicolas Fink, tall and authoritative, drew out a great gamut of dynamics and colours. All sang soulfully, faithful to the spirit of Orthodox music, including the soloists, Marie-Helene Gatti, Pierre Vaello and Philippe Eyquem, the choir’s own. Courageously, they sang these parts written for the Russian Voice, but which they made their own with French flair and sensitivity. Bravo!
“Be a light to lighten” this Chanuka, this Christmas, this New Year !
The concert will be broadcast on Friday 9 January 2015 at 14:00 Paris time on France Musique and can be heard on francemusique.fr
Copyright Rosemarine 2014