Even at 9.20 on a cold Thursday evening in January, there were queues out the door to hear the Pegasus Choir’s debut at the Brandenburg Choral Festival. As the sixteenth concert of 66, the performance certainly needed something special to attract the crowds. This was achieved by programming Rachmaninov’s magnificent All-Night Vigil – perhaps one of the most famous settings of the Vespers.

Jennifer Koh © Juergen Frank
Jennifer Koh
© Juergen Frank

On entering the half-lit church candles flickered around the base of pillars and in windows, creating a reverential atmosphere even before the choir emerged. For those readers who are not familiar with the Russian Orthodox tradition, the All-Night Vigil was - in centuries past - celebrated by the Church on the eve of major liturgical feasts, and would last from 6pm Saturday to 9am Sunday. Consequently, the event combined the services of Vespers (evening prayer), Matins (midnight prayer) and First Hour (morning prayer at dawn). By the end of the nineteenth century however, this ceremony had been reduced to just three hours. It is likely that Rachmaninov’s setting from 1915 was in fact intended for the concert hall rather than a religious context; it was premiered as part of a fundraising concert for the Russian War Effort, and received high praise from critics. Sadly, the work’s early life in Russia was short-lived: after the Revolution of 1917, sacred music was banned by the emerging Soviet authorities.

Although not a full-time professional ensemble, the Pegasus choir has received its fair share of awards, premieres and broadcasts. The choir’s performance this evening would not disappoint. Conductor (and management consultant) Matthew Altham led the ensemble with great sensitivity; the choir coped well with the sudden changes of dynamic and rhythm which Rachmaninov juxtaposes throughout the work.

Several of the movements stood out for me; the most memorable without doubt being the third, Blessed is the man. In free metre and harmonised by simple thirds, the comforting ‘Alliluya’ refrain sung by the whole ensemble was interspersed by solos - the tenor soloist in particular was excellent, his voice ringing throughout the church. The simplicity of the writing in this section was a perfect opportunity for the meaning and emotion of the psalm to shine through. The seventh movement, The six psalms, also made a lasting impression. Beginning in a similarly reflective mood, the gentle folk-like alto melody gave way to a powerful declaration of praise with an imitation of church bells on the repeated word ‘Slava’ (‘Glory’). As if on cue, after the next movemen,t the bells of St Martin-in-the-Fields chimed 10 o’clock, causing a prolonged but rather appropriate pause before the ninth movement began in praise of the Resurrection. The familiar melody from the seventh movement returned in the twelfth – with the same text and key – but this time went on to combine effortlessly with Russian Orthodox znamenny chant, which Rachmaninov weaves into five of the fifteen sections.

Overall, the combined sound of the ensemble was well balanced. On a few occasions I felt that the volume at climaxes was a little too loud for the acoustic, sacrificing tonal quality and making the sound slightly overwhelming. A couple of low and high notes also lacked focus in tone – such as the renowned low B flat in the bass at the end of the Nunc Dimittis. This may be forgivable however, since in 1915 upon first hearing the movement played at the piano, even the conductor of the premiere is rumoured to have said ‘"Now where on earth are we to find such basses? They are as rare as asparagus at Christmas!"

It is said that Rachmaninov was so proud of this work that he requested the fifth movement to be sung at his funeral; I’d like to think that he’d have been pleased with the Pegasus Choir’s performance tonight.