Music review: A night of of Rachmaninoff by the Washington Chorus
Few of Rachmaninoff's compositions possess the rich and rarefied beauty of his a capella, Russian Orthodox liturgical setting, the Vespers, Op. 37. Washington Chorus music directorJulian Wachner programmed the Vespers for Sunday evening's all-Rachmaninoff concert at the Kennedy Center but interspersed its movements with art songs and excerpts from the two-piano reduction of the Symphonic Dances. If that format made something of a hash of the Vespers as an organic whole, it provided a welcome change of style and texture throughout the evening.
Rachmaninoff's successful balancing act - combining actual Orthodox chant with suitably ancient-sounding, new-composed melodies and harmonizing them to sound at once traditional and conservatively modern - registered effectively in the Chorus's performance. Wachner found a lovely stillness at the work's core while exploiting all of the composer's late-Romantic manipulations of tempo and dynamic in a reading of splendid life and immediacy. The Chorus - a huge ensemble that all but filled the Concert Hall stage - delivered full-blooded tone (with a nicely grainy, authentically Russian-sounding rumble from the basses), crystal-clear diction and laudable refinement in their tapered phrasing.
American tenor Chad A. Johnson sounded idiomatically at home in the varied clusters of art songs, scaling their often athletically high-lying writing with a very Russian blend of plaintive and stentorian tone and the requisite yearning sob in the voice. And Wachner dazzled with some bravura keyboard work, both in the rhapsodic accompaniments to the songs and - together with the commanding pianist Grace Cho - in the highly virtuosic transcription of the Dances.
- Joe Banno