Rachmaninov’s Vigil worth staying up for

Concerts by Resurgam and the RTÉ NSO and what operas producers want to put on

Rachmaninov’s Vigil suited the resonant acoustic of City Hall’s rotunda

Rachmaninov’s Vigil suited the resonant acoustic of City Hall’s rotunda


Oskar von Riesemann published his biography of Rachmaninov based on interviews with the composer in 1934. The composer’s favourite was the cantata The Bells, which, he said, “is still the one I like best of all my works; after that comes my Vesper Mass – then there is a long gap between it and the rest.”

Rachmaninov wrote his Vesper Mass, or as it is now more correctly known in English, his All-Night Vigil, in less than two weeks, as a critical response to hearing a performance of his earlier Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, “which, by the way,” he told Riesemann, “I do not like at all, for it solves the problem of Russian Church music very inadequately. Ever since my childhood I had been attracted by the magnificent melodies of the Oktoechos. I always felt that a special style was needed for their choral treatment, and this I hoped to have found in the Vesper Mass.”

For the Liturgy, Rachmaninov wrote all the material. For the 15 movements of the Vespers he used mostly traditional chants and described the six of his own that he also used as “conscious counterfeits”.

For a composer of Rachmaninov’s standing, writing music for the Orthodox Church was in one sense a thankless task, as it had been for Tchaikovsky before him. The church wants the words to be paramount, so official disapproval was almost to be taken for granted. And yet his All-Night Vigil has become the work which, in the West, has come to represent the Orthodox musical tradition’s strength.

Mark Duley’s choir Resurgam took the Vigil on a short tour, exploring the tradition further in works by Bortniansky, Tchaikovsky and Pärt in Dundalk and Newport, where Garrett Sholdice’s new Cherubikon was also heard, and local choirs (Clermont Chorale and Cór Mhaigh Eo) were also drawn in. The Dublin concert, at City Hall on Saturday, just included the Vigil. The resonant acoustic of City Hall’s rotunda, so problematic in so much repertoire, seemed ideal, and Resurgam’s singing, with the important solos taken by an imposing Victoria Massey and a noble Jacek Wislocki, offered an impressive, immersive experience. I was reminded of a quote by John Cage, who, at a time of creative crisis, found a reason to compose from the Indian musician Gira Sarabhai, who told him, “The purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences.”

Lintu’s farewell
The week’s other major concert offered an even greater rarity. In his final appearance as principal guest conductor of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, Hannu Lintu coupled early and late works by Sibelius. The large-scale Kullervo – setting part of the epic Kalevala for soloists, chorus and orchestra – was first heard in 1892, but withdrawn the following year and not heard again complete until after the composer’s death. The stark tone poem Tapiola was written in 1926 and nothing of note would follow it, although Sibelius lived until 1957.

Lintu was on top form, securing playing of a blazing intensity from the NSO. The harsher elements of Tapiola were delivered with unstinting power, and the rough edges of Kullervo were advantageously treated as if they were envisioning a future that was never quite to be. In Lintu’s hands the music was raw, powerful, unfettered in a way that Sibelius would abandon for the more structured world of the symphony proper.

All the singerswere Finnish, with the soprano and baritone soloists Johanna Rusanen-Kartano and Ville Rusanen as well as the male voices of the Polytech Choir of Finland making their strongly projected contributions from memory. The audience brought conductor and soloists back again and again at the end, as if reluctant to break the spell by ending their applause.

Opera funding applications
The Arts Council recently considered applications for opera funding for 2013 and 2014 after Opera Theatre Company’s Irish première of Berg’s Wozzeck, which had been awarded €360,000, fell through.

The enforced departure of Opera Ireland has robbed Dublin of regular opera seasons featuring four productions every year, a loss which the council’s policy does not look like remedying soon. But there have also been gains. Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, which the council funded Wide Open Opera to present last year, is not what many people would imagine Opera Ireland daring to take on. The projects for which 2014 funding was sought covers work that OI never really sought to represent, including: Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, Weill’s The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, John Adams’s Nixon in China, Britten’s Noye’s Fludde, Britten’s Rape of Lucretia, Ben Frost’s The Wasp Factory, Marschner’s The Vampire, Puccini’s Turandot, Mozart’s Magic Flute, and a new adaptation of Puccini’s Suor Angelica.

The re-offered 2013 Wozzeck money was sought for, among others, Verdi’s Otello, Weill’s Threepenny Opera, Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, and Steve Reich’s Three Tales. The council has yet to announce which projects won its blessing.

Wexford Festival will open on October 23rd with Nino Rota’s Il Cappello di paglia di Firenze, followed by a Massenet double bill (Thérèse and La Navarraise) and Jacopo Foroni’s Cristina, regina di Svezia. The four ShortWork operas will be Verdi’s La traviata, Balfe’s Sleeping Queen, Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’amore, and Richard Wargo’s Losers. General booking on wexfordopera.com opens next Tuesday.

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