The great Russian Orthodox cathedrals of Moscow were designed to offer the faithful a vision of heaven on earth. Outside, pure white walls are topped with numerous golden domes whilst inside, every wall is covered with paintings and icons of the saints; the air is filled with sweet incense, and if you look right up into one of those domes, what you’re most likely to see, far above you, is a picture of Christ, crowned in heavenly glory. In contrast with Western European Roman Catholic and Protestant artistic traditions, the torments of Good Friday take second place to the victory of the resurrection: there are no gruesomely realistic crucifixion scenes, and no musical equivalent of Bach’s Passions or the great Renaissance Tenebrae settings. Instead, the highlight of the Orthodox year is the service that begins on the stroke of midnight on the turn of Easter Sunday, and continues all through the night, and probably one of the most famous pieces of Russian Orthodox music is Rachmaninov’s setting of the texts from that service, the All Night Vigil.

Chorus of Royal Northern Sinfonia © Mark Savage
Chorus of Royal Northern Sinfonia
© Mark Savage

The All Night Vigil was not in fact approved by the Orthodox authorities for liturgical use, but it offers a wonderfully intense and concentrated insight into the Orthodox soul and by some miracle of suspended time, the Chorus of Royal Northern Sinfonia crammed a whole night of radiance into one glorious hour.

I expected their Church Slavonic to be good: they’re an incredibly disciplined choir, and I knew that they had put in a lot of rehearsal time on getting their voices round those notoriously brutal consonant clusters. The faster passages of text were fluent and clean, and the tricky soft “kh” at the ends of words that often defeats English choirs were always unanimous and tight. What I hadn’t expected though was such a vivid illumination of the liturgy, and I was left with the sense that each singer thoroughly understood every single word, and was personally committed to communicating that meaning to an audience who were probably not, on the whole, familiar with the language or the theology.

Conductor Edward Caswell painted the text with lavish colours worthy of one of those Orthodox cathedrals. The opening chorus, calling the faithful to worship, embraced Hall Two at Sage Gateshead with a warm and joyous welcome before moving into a series of reverent contemplations on God’s creation and his mercy. The choral chants rocked hypnotically, and key words such as the Alleluias or the word “soul” received a luxurious swelling and fall. The choir and soloists captured too the distinctive intonation and flow of Orthodox chanting.

The other challenge to choirs beyond the words are the demands that Rachmaninov places on the singers – most famously the basses, but all the voice parts have to work hard to produce the consistent depth and richness of sound that the dense writing requires. Even from the slightly odd seat that I was given, positioned almost behind the sopranos, the chorus sounded well balanced and they kept going with stupendous levels of commitment and energy right through to the end. The basses made an heroic assault on Rachmaninov’s low notes, and I can’t really blame them for being a bit over-eager at times to show off what they could do.

As the texts moved to the story of the Resurrection, particularly in the ninth movement  Blagosloven Yesi, Gospodi, the singing grew in intensity, highlighting the Orthodox emphasis on the splendour of the risen Christ and leaving me incredibly moved. I liked the way that Caswell continued to create contrast and colour, returning to an earnest fervour for each repeat of the refrain “Blessed art Thou O Lord, teach me thy statutes” and creating an ecstatic dance for the words that tell of Eve’s sadness turning to joy. As the night wore on, the Gloria and the final hymns ushered in the dawn with cool and simple clarity and the quiet sustained singing in Movement 14 Vozkres iz groba (“Christ is risen from the grave”) gave a sense of a slow climb from darkness and death back to light. The final hymn sent us gently back into the world suffused with a sense of wonder at the brief glories that Edward Caswell and the Chorus of Royal Northern Sinfonia had shared with us.