Rachmaninoff: Known and Unknown

A program of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s familiar and unfamiliar liturgical and concerted choral compositions provided the basis of a recital by the Slavyanka Chorus and assorted musicians, Saturday, June 9, at the First Presbyterian Church, Palo Alto, Irina Shachneva, conductor. Slavyanka embodies a 40-member chorus established in 2000, the name’s having been taken from the old Russian version of Northern California’s Russian River. In 2010, Irina Shachneva founded the International Rachmaninoff Music Festival in Boston. Ms. Shachneva has since led performances of the Rachmaninoff Vespers at various venues, including Moscow’s Tchaikovsky Conservatory and St. Petersburg’s Glinka Capella.

While Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) retained his devotion to the Russian religious liturgy, his original compositions in the medium were often rejected by church authorities as unsuited for institutional practice. Nevertheless, their intrinsic beauty and sincerity shine and attract devotees. The program opened with three selections from the Vespers (All-Night Vigil), Op. 37 (1915), a cappella, with its strong foundation tone in the male voices, for the Call to Worship, and proceeding to the Greek doxologies, “Bless the Lord, O My Soul” and “Praise the Name of The Lord.” The dry acoustic of the Presbyterian Church, not withstanding, the amateur group aroused the sincerity and devotional ardor in Rachmaninoff’s treatment, with a wonderfully hued mixolydian G Major harmony in the second selection, with its lyrical soprano part from Claire Mackenzie. The ensemble maintained good homogeneity of tone, and the polyphony, mostly in canon, achieved a rapture required by the Psalms 135-136.

From Rachmaninoff’s earlier, 1910 Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, Op. 31, we heard four excerpts, beginning with the height of verisimilitude, as George Cheremeteff and Alexey Bykon intoned the Deacon  and Priest roles of The Great Litany of Peace, invoking the congregation’s response to the refrain, “God have mercy.” The female choir then sang from Matthew’s Beatitudes – to be answered by the male chorus – in emphatic proclamations of Jesus’ admonitions for personal salvation. The third part, “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal One,” sounded like a devotional message of Leo Tolstoy. For the plaintive “We Sing to You,” soloist Donna Warrington illuminated the mystery of Jesus’ death as an expression of infinite tenderness. The “find” of the evening came in the form of Rachmaninoff’s nineteen-year-old, 1893 Sacred Choral Concerto in G Minor, a hymn to commemorate the death of the Virgin Mary, opening in a four-part a cappella canon and moving into two more movements, a meditative “slow movement,” and a “presto” last movement as Mary finds resurrection in our hearts, interceding with her Son on behalf of a sinful humanity.

The intermission provided us with instrumental Rachmaninoff as played by guest students: first pianist Michael Kulinich performed the ubiquitous Prelude in C# Minor, Op. 3, No. 2 (1892) on a finicky Grotrian Steinweg instrument, the original form of the modern Steinway, but discontinued in America after 1975. The youthful Mr. Kulinich possessed the technical means to render the outer sections with massive Russian bells, but overzealous pedal work smeared the lines of the hectic middle section. Violinist Anat Kardntchk, her long, ardent lines accompanied by Liuba Kardontchik at the same Grotrian instrument, intoned the ever-lovely Vocalise, Op. 34, No. 14.

A series of three Rachmaninoff lieder then followed: “How fair is This Place,” Op. 21, No. 7, as sung by soprano Elena Stepanova-Gurevich; “In the Silence of the Night,” Op. 4, No. 3, as sung by baritone Rene Minneboo; “The Tribe is Asleep,” from the 1892 opera Aleko, as sung by bass Paul Tavernier; and the choral song, “At My Window,” Op. 26, No. 10.  Each of these lyrical, concert-songs enjoyed a directness of expression and congeniality suited to the romantic and pantheistic themes of love and loss, and the seductions of Natural beauty. These works were dedicated to the memory of the late Dmitri Hvorostovsky (1962-2017), the revered operatic baritone. The concert would conclude with another full-choir arrangement, this by Irina Shachneva, of the song “Spring Waters,” Op. 14 (1896), with words by F. Tyutchev. The song celebrates what Turgenev labeled “The Torrents of Spring” and their capacity to infuse new life into all things.

The penultimate offering may have been the most colorfully presented: the Three Russian Folksongs, Op. 41 (1926), dedicated to Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Here, a group of instrumentalists assisted in adding to the effects: Liuba Kardontchik, piano; Andrei Kovalenko, timpani; violin Anat Kardontchik; and Karina Ghor and Sun Gy, percussion.  Each of the songs suggests a sense of loss, nostalgic and occasionally tinted by recriminations. The last of the songs, “Powder and Paint,” proves the most rhythmically ingenious, often anticipating some of the metrics Orff would use ten years later in his 1936 Carmina Burana.

This was “amateurism” in the best sense, music made for the sole love of the art, rendered by conscientious, loyal devotees.


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