Review - Cantata Singers more than up to the Vespers


Russian Voices

The Cantata Singers of Ottawa and the Saint Lawrence Choir of Montreal, Michael Zaugg, conductor

Rachmaninov’s All Night Vigil, op. 37, commonly called the Vespers, is familiar to Ottawa choral music lovers. It has been in the Cantata Singer’ repertoire for a long time. Not counting Sunday afternoon, they’ve performed it at least twice in the past, in 1998 and 2001 and the Ottawa Choral Society has had a go at it a couple of years later.

To do this a cappella work justice, the performing ensemble has to be very good and fairly large. The good part is not a problem with the Cantata Singers, but size can be. This time the chorus joined forces with the St. Lawrence Choir of Montreal and sang it with them Saturday evening at the Eglise Immaculée-Conception in Montreal and in Ottawa’s St. Joseph’s Church Sunday afternoon.

The program included short works appropriate to the Vigil by other composers, including the Ukrainian-Canadian Roman Hurko and the 17th-century Vasily Titov who composed for, among others, Peter the Great.

Titov’s The Angel Cried Out is for three choirs of 12 parts each. It doesn’t sound especially Russian, but it did sound lovely Sunday afternoon. The choirs were placed some distance from one another and the resulting antiphony was striking.

Hurko’s Gladsome Light and Rejoice, O Virgin are simple works of great feeling and they fit beautifully into the program.

There were also items by Alexander Sheremetev, Victor Kalinnikov and Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov, all of them worth hearing. Any good chorus sounds its best when it sings unaccompanied music, and that certainly proved to be the case with the combined choirs in this program.

But there is no doubt that the Vigil, also unaccompanied, was the heart and soul of the concert, even if three of its 15 movements were omitted.

Michael Zaugg, who is conductor of both choirs, has the musical idiom down cold and led the singers in a performance that didn’t leave much to be desired. The blend and balance of the voices were exemplary and for the most part the ensemble was precise. Things got a little fuzzy in the last movement, presumably because the singers were pretty tired by then. The bass singing wasn’t as imposing as you would hear from a good Russian choir, but it was more than adequate.

Contralto Sonia Sasseville and tenor David Menzies were outstanding in their brief solo contributions.

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© Michael Zaugg 2019