The weekend brought more Russian music, this from the Chicago Chorale, which lent its massed voices to the Eastern Orthodox Lenten celebration with a fervent performance of Sergei Rachmaninov's monumental "Vespers" — or, as it is properly called, "All-Night Vigil" — under director Bruce Tammen.
The composer's settings of 15 texts — nine based on existing chants, the other six consisting of original material he called "conscious counterfeits" — represent the crowning achievement of Russian Orthodox choral music. These a cappella hymns, psalms and prayers brought out some of his most inspired musical invention. They reveal an altogether different Rachmaninov from the composer we know from his piano concertos and symphonies.
Yet the challenges posed by the "Vespers" are great for Western choirs, standing as they do outside the music's ancient Russian sacred tradition, not to mention having to cope with the score's huge technical, musical, linguistic and expressive demands.
I cannot vouch for the absolute accuracy of Old Church Slavonic diction Tammen secured from his 64 amateur choristers but came away moved by the beauty and high professionalism of their performance Saturday at St. Benedict Catholic Church in Chicago's North Center neighborhood.
The resonant acoustics nourished a choral sound that was pinpoint of blend and intonation, yet was ever alert to rapid shifts of tempo, dynamics and register. Sonorities coalesced into a dark cloud one moment, opening into a luminous haze the next. The chorale's wholehearted engagement with the texts was never in question.
If Tammen's basses could not quite match the deep, tolling magnificence their Russian counterparts would bring to their low B flats, the bell-like pealing of the altos and tenors around the nicely reedy solo tenor of Bill McDougall made a most pleasing effect in the prayerful "Lord, Now Lettest Thou." The chorus' able finessing of the interlaced vocal parts and quick reiterations of text in "The Great Doxology" was another highlight. The Chicago Chorale will conclude its 15th anniversary season with a concert June 11 at Hyde Park Union Church.
John von Rhein is a Tribune critic.