Anthony Antolini, director of the Rachmaninoff Choir, composed of the Down East Singers and the Bowdoin Chorus, has performed a labor of love in presenting a rare concert version of Rachmaninoff’s Liturgy of St. John Chrysotom (1910).
It premiered Thursday night before a full house at the Bowdoin College Chapel.
Although the work sounds totally authentic to Western ears, it was considered too modern at the time by the Russian Orthodox Church and was not approved for church use.
This is not the Rachmaninoff of the Piano Concerto No. 2, but a work of genius for a capella choir, based on deep knowledge of the liturgy and its musical accompaniment, learned in childhood and flooding back when the composer was in his 30s.
What was most memorable in all of the 20 movements of the Liturgy, was the contrast between the clear, highly enunciated chants – the deacon’s by bass Michael Krohn, and the priest’s by tenor Antolini – with the flowing polyphony of the chorus. The single voices intoning the text stood out perfectly. Other soloists were Amanda Mahaffey, contralto, and Anne Brady, soprano.
In the Liturgy, as in Rachmaninoff’s Vespers, the basses are all-important.
While the balance in the choir was good, it could have been improved by the addition of a few more Chaliapin-like voices for true Russian organ-point. As it was, the chorus seemed a little too Western, with its predominance of sopranos.
The bass line was most prominent, and satisfying, in the setting of the Lord’s Prayer, where Rachmaninoff was permitted (by tradition) the least musical freedom.
While we are quibbling about a once-in-a-lifetime performance, wouldn’t it have been possible, with all the time and effort expended by Antolini and his choruses, to locate a good boy soprano?
Nothing else will do when one is called for, as in the movement “To Thee We Sing.” The difference is between the human and the angelic.
For Rachmaninoff being his characteristic self, one must turn to the sections “May our Mouths be Filled with Praise,” and the Communion Hymn: “Praise the Lord from the Heavens,” the latter reminiscent of his cantata, “The Bells.”
The Liturgy will be repeated Saturday at St. James’ Episcopal Church in Cambridge, Mass., and on Sunday (movements 11-20) at North Springfield High School in North Springfield, R.I. It was presented on Friday at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Dover, N.H.
The prohibition against its being performed in church was lifted in 1988 for the millennium celebration of Russian Orthodoxy.
Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at: