This evening’s concert, performed by one of Russia’s best choirs, focused on Rachmaninoff’s All Night Vigil (Vespers). The programme provided an in-depth experience of this piece. Not only did the St. Petersburg Chamber Choir offer a moving performance of the choral masterpiece, but before the intermission, the selected composers Kastalsky and Tchaikovsky provided a historical context for the Vespers. Both are important figures in the development of Russian sacred music. Tchaikovsky’s groundbreaking Liturgy of St. John of Chrysostom opened the door for other composers to develop new music to the hymns. Kastalsky and Rachmaninoff were in turn able to provide new music to the repertoire of Russian sacred music without any bureaucratic permission required. The programme tonight offered a grand experience of that repertoire.

The selection of four pieces from Kastalsky’s Russian Requiem provided an intriguing introduction to the now little known Russian composer. Alexander Kastalsky was an important figure in Russian choir music: son of a Russian Orthodox priest and a student of Tchaikovsky’s, he wrote at least 130 choral pieces. He is perhaps best known for his multilingual Great War Requiem, Fraternal Remembrance (1916), on which the Requiem aeternam of his Russian Requiem is based. His choices of melodies and languages for the hymns reveal his wide exploration in music: the weighty Requiem aeternam is set to an orthodox melody, the Confutatis to an Anglican melody and the Hostias to both Orthodox and Catholic melodies. The variation in the melodies provided a rich environment for the sections of the choir to present their skills and warm up the audience for the rest of the evening. Noteworthy were the tenor parts in the Ingemisco.

After Kastalsky, Nikolai Korniev expertly conducted his choir in a performance of most of the latter part of Tchaikovksy’s Liturgy. The transparent voices excelled in the homophonic Credo offering an exquisite purity in voice. While the choir sang elegantly and cohesively, moving through each part with great focus, it was not until The Sunday Communion Hymn with its heavenly Hallelujah that the singers were given the opportunity to offer their highest quality and confirm their reputation. An evening highlight, the Hallelujah ending with the sections flowing into each beautifully, left the audience exhilarated during the intermission.

After the break, it was time for Rachmaninoff. Besides Tchaikovsky’s influence on Russian sacred music, it was also Kastalsky who influenced Rachmaninoff. As the highest authority on sacred composition of his time, Kastalsky was asked by Rachmaninoff for advice on his All Night Vigil. Not only did Kastalsky suggest the orthodox hymns for Rachmaninoff’s seminal work, but he also provided commentary during composing for each separate movement. It is perhaps Kastalsky’s direct influence that can explain the rich variation and moods within the wide-reaching piece. Though of course, Rachmaninoff 's trademark melancholy always remained unscathed underneath.

In Rachmaninoff, the choir sounded richly spiritual, layered with depth, and at times altogether mystical. The Hexapsalmos provided a heavenly moment, when all sections merged together and created a resounding, transparent sound that shone like a pure light through the Great Hall. In Blessed is the Lord, the Hallelujah repeated this accomplishment. The purity and depth they offered left the Concertgebouw silent and completely moved. For the opening of Christ Resurrection the sonorous basses enriched the proceeding with a delicate and transparent density. The highlight of the evening occurred during the Greater Doxology, in which the Znamenny Chant provided utter peace and tranquillity while the volume ebbed between tenderness and force. It was a breath-taking performance that left the audience completely impressed at its close. After an explosive finale that felt like an explosion of light, after the last voices in Thanksgiving to the Mother of God faded, the Great Hall remained silenced, until the enlightened audience came back to their senses with a rousing ovation.