Most people I’ve met claim they were drawn into studying Russian by the country’s prolific literary culture (some, let’s be honest, because of the country’s seemingly endless supply of beautiful women). While I think of Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita as a masterpiece, the tomes of Tolstoy and piles of works by Fedor Dostoevsky, Mikhail Lermontov, Leonid Andreev, Isaac Babel, and many more that graced my desk were never enough on their own to draw me in. Fascinating studies of a foreign culture certainly, but hardly sufficient to stop me in my tracks.
For me, the real wealth of Russian arts, their truly inimitable cultural contribution to the world, was its classical music. It was the music that drew me in, wanting to better understand the history and culture that had produced such a deep and varied art. Among the modernists, I marveled at Aleksandr Skryabin, influenced by the atonal works of Schoenberg and the tonal language with which Chopin experimented, he composed synesthetic Black and White Masses. Despite his experimentation, he retained the undeniable air of thorough classical education and technique so apparent in certain Russian composers, most detectable in the dark, complex pieces composed for the left hand written after he severely inured his right overpracticing Liszt’s Réminiscences de Don Juan and Balakirev’s Islamey and was told he’d never play again.
I was fascinated by Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Dyagilev’s Ballets Russes, as well as the idea that an audience could be so impassioned and enraged by a performance that they would riot, throw chairs, and challenge one another to duels. Among the classicists, I heard the Central European training behind Tchaikovsky’s works morph into something distinctly Russian, with internal movements in chords and instrumentation where lines moved away from and back toward one another, forming a uniquely elegant tonality and texture. I loved the spry Slavic tension of Shostakovich and the gushing Romantic depths of Modest Mussorgsky, patron of a Nationalist philosophy shared by Rimsky-Korsakov and Glinka, who believed Russian music must be written in a Russian way, and must express the Russian soul.
I’d grown up knowing and loving all of these composers. But my favorite of all of them, by far, was Sergei Rachmaninov. As a classical pianist, my first exposure to Rachmaninov was through his piano and symphonic works. Infamous for his huge hands and sweeping, thunderously Romantic chords, his Piano Concerto no. 2 and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini were some of my early favorites. For me, his unaccompanied choral works went overlooked until my first trip to Moscow in 2005, when a kiosk owner nudged a CD toward me with the pitch that it was “Putin’s favorite.” The disc was a recording of Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil Op. 37 (Всенощное бдение, соч. 37) performed by the USSR State Academic Russian Choir conducted by Aleksandr Sveshnikov with soloists Klara Korkan and Konstantin Ognevoi, and despite my skepticism of his claim, I bought it. The piece draws heavily on ancient Greek, Kievan, and Znamenny chants, which Rachmaninov had studied, but incorporated the modern, rich, intricate textures and harmonies that only he was capable of producing. One of the pieces, Ныне Отпущаеши (Lord, Lettest Thou), features bass notes so low the was told would be impossible to find singers capable of performing them. When reflecting on this later, Rachmaninov commented only that he, “knew the voices of [his] countrymen and was well aware the demands [he] could put on Russian basses!” The song was later performed at his funeral.
One hundred years ago, in 1915, Sergei Rachmaninov composed this entire opus in just under two weeks. It remains one of the most stunningly beautiful pieces of music ever written and though I’ve sought out other recordings over the years, this version conducted by Sveshnikov in 1965 is truly exceptional.
All-Night Vigil Op. 37 No. 3 Blessed is the Man || Всенощное бдение соч. 37 № 3 Блажен муж
All-Night Vigil Op. 37 No. 5 Lord, Lettest Thou || Всенощное бдение соч. 37 № 5 Ныне Отпущаеши
All-Night Vigil Op. 37 No. 10 Having Beheld the Resurrection of Christ || Всенощное бдение соч. 37 № 10 Воскресение Христого видевше