Fifteen dark jewels embedded in a black velvet robe soaring from the altar in front of us to the firmament above, these fifteen motets of Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil yield his finest (and his own personal favourite) work, a revolution in Russian sacred music, and an overwhelming listening experience.
Its pertinent timescales – musical and non-musical alike – are intriguing. How long it was in gestation we do not know, but for the composer an important timescale is that it was written down in a mere two weeks in the winter of 1915, much of it reputedly on train journeys between fund-raising concerts that Rachmaninov was giving in support of Russia’s war effort. For the musicologist, that fortnight’s intensive labour proved sufficient for a single work to draw Orthodox sacred music into the twentieth century. For the cultural historian, Rachmaninov’s decisive intervention in a centuries-old musical tradition enjoyed barely three years’ flowering before that tradition’s Holy Synod was itself swept away in a political, rather than musical, revolution. For Western audiences, the work might as well not have existed for the fifty years separating its composition from the first availability of recordings in the 1960s. For the performer, the complete absence of time-signatures in some of the movements, and irregular bar lengths scattered throughout, preserve the solemnity of ancient chants within modern lyrical metre. For the listener, the mesmeric repetitions, the beguiling refrains successively ascending the diatonic scale, the antiphonal effects, the ostinati and the sparing use of polyphony within a sustained luxuriance of sound, all conspire to suspend our ordinary experience of musical duration. Beyond these, for the penitent – perhaps, in the end, for us all – the blazing fusion of the separate movements into a majestic whole offers us a glimpse of eternity.