The rituals and traditions of the Orthodox Church formed an essential part of Sergei Rachmaninov's musical and cultural background. As a young boy in St Petersburg he'd accompany his grandmother to the city’s churches, later remarking: 'I took less interest in God and religious worship than in the singing, which was of unrivalled beauty, especially in the cathedrals.'
Phrases reminiscent of liturgical chant appear in Rachmaninov's music from the First Symphony of 1895 to the Symphonic Dances of 1940, and from the time of its first performance in 1915, his All-Night Vigil has been recognised as a supreme achievement in the music of the Russian Orthodox Church. Together with the choral symphony The Bells, it was also the composer’s own favourite among all his works. Often referred to as ‘Rachmaninov’s Vespers’, its fifteen movements in fact make up an All-night Vigil service, consisting of not only the Vespers, but also the liturgical offices of Matins, Lauds and Prime.
When composing it, Rachmaninov carefully observed the general principles of Orthodox church music, but seems to have realised that the practical difficulties of his Vigil made liturgical performances unlikely. The choral writing makes huge demands on even the most skilled choirs: in the course of the work Rachmaninov shows astonishing resource in exploiting every possibility offered by changes of texture, timbre, register and weight. It is here performed by the highly regarded Netherlands Radio Choir, one of the largest and most versatile professional choirs in the world, conducted by Kaspars Putniņš.
As a coupling they have chosen to record one of Rachmaninov's earliest works, composed in 1893 and unpublished in his lifetime. The Theotokos, Ever-Vigilant in Prayer is a hymn to the Virgin – ‘the one who gives birth to God’ – and clearly aims to exploit the skill of a first-class choir, with its varied textures, tempos and wide range of dynamics.