The eastern Orthodox vigil is the equivalent of western Christianity’s matins and vespers, combining the two into a single service, usually held on a Saturday night, in which the congregation is asked to contemplate the light of the coming dawn as emblematic of Christ’s resurrection. Rachmaninov’s setting, sometimes erroneously referred to as simply his Vespers, remains the most familiar outside eastern Europe, and was written in 1915, not for liturgical use but for a benefit concert in aid of the Russian war effort. Among the most beautiful of all works for unaccompanied chorus, it turns away from temporal conflict and gazes calmly into eternity, and its sincerity seems all the more remarkable when we remember that Rachmaninov wrote it long after he had ceased to be a churchgoer. The US conductor Charles Bruffy and the Phoenix and Kansas City Chorales have long been outstanding interpreters of this repertory and their performance has a devotional intensity that is often overwhelming. The recording itself is on the reverberant side. But by the end, you know exactly why it one of Rachmaninov’s favourites among his own works, and why many consider it his greatest.
Tim Ashley is a Guardian classical and opera critic, though he's also keen on literature and philosophy so you might sometimes find him cross-referencing all three. His work has also appeared in Literary Review and Opera magazine and he is author of a biography of Richard Strauss