Historical Performance Norms and Russian Sacred Music

The Case of Rachmaninov’s All Night Vigil

  • Robert Galbraith University of Edinburgh
Keywords: performance norms, historical performance, concert performance, chamber performance


Historical performances can create de facto norms that inform or constrain later performances, but relevant studies of Russian sacred music have long been constrained by a lack of recordings. Recently, the demise of the Soviet Union, the advent of the Internet and the popularity of Rachmaninov’s Vigil (“Vespers”) have collectively made multiple recordings available; 34 were analysed for this paper using the Magnificat (section 11). Group 1 included four Soviet-era recordings, with the first ‘historical’ recording, made by Sveshnikov in 1965. The latter never officially appeared in the USSR, but was released in the West, consistent with interest in promoting Soviet achievements. The remaining 30 recordings came after 1991: nine by Slavic choirs (Group 2); and 21 by non-Slavic choirs (Group 3). The following measures were scored subjectively: quality of singing; weight; balance and coordination; tuning; dynamic range; vocal clarity; and prominence of basses. Choirs in Groups 1 and 2 generally followed the historical Sveshnikov ‘concert’ formulation – large choir; weighty singing; prominent basses; and extreme dynamics. Some Group 3 choirs followed this pattern, but several were smaller and gave lighter ‘chamber’ performances with better balance across the four voice parts. High quality of singing was notable in the smaller, all-professional ensembles. In conclusion, weighty, concert performances may have become a norm for this work; however, the Magnificat is said reflectively by Mary, a humble woman, in reverence and thanks for her blessing. Perhaps it is now time to be exploring more nuanced chamber performances?

Conference Papers: Sounds of the Holy, Joensuu 2019
Nov 30, 2020
How to Cite
Galbraith, Robert. 2020. “Historical Performance Norms and Russian Sacred Music: The Case of Rachmaninov’s All Night Vigil”. Journal of the International Society for Orthodox Music 4 (2), 254-58. https://journal.fi/jisocm/article/view/95687.