The Chichester Singers tackle Rachmaninov’s Vespers in Russian!

Jonathan Willcocks
Jonathan Willcocks

Singing in Russian is the challenge ahead for the Chichester Singers in Chichester Cathedral on Saturday, April 1 at 7.30pm.

Musical director Jonathan Willcocks is coaching them through Rachmaninov’s Vespers which they will combine with Jongen’s Mass, Op 130.

“I wanted a programme with the choir that gives them the opportunity to sing a major work which is totally unaccompanied. It is a great piece of 15 movements heavily influenced by the Russian orthodox church which is very much in the tradition of unaccompanied choral singing. We are doing nine of the movements. The whole would be a little long, and I wanted to combine it with something which would be contrasting.

“We are singing the Rachmaninov in Russian. Fortunately, we have one fluent Russian speaker in the choir, and she has been very helpful in helping with the pronunciation. Fortunately, the choir has the words in the original Russian in Cyrillic script but also written phonetically.

“But it is quite a challenge! At first they thought ‘Jonathan, what have you put us in for!’ But they are really getting into it. The particular vowel sounds of the Russian language give a particular quality, and it is a very musical language.

“And it is different again to be singing with no large professional orchestra as accompaniment, as well as being a very different style of repertoire. But I am very keen that they should always be extending their repertoire.”

To rehearse a piece which will be accompanied is a little like rehearsing a play with only half the cast there or no scenery on stage, Jonathan says: “But with this, you get the complete experience in rehearsals.

“You can see the whole thing develop, and it is very good for them to sing music which is entirely independent of any support.

“The challenge is to get them over what I call the credibility hump, to get over the initial difficulties of the language. They have been singing with me for years, and hopefully they will know that I am not selling them a dog!

“You get a sense of momentum in rehearsals. Some are very fluent sight-readers, but really the biggest challenge has been getting past the language barrier. It is not like singing in English – or in Latin where a lot of the words are very familiar.”

For reasons of contrast, Jongen’s Mass, Op 130 will work well alongside the Rachmaninov, Jonathan feels.

“I came across this piece which is scored for choir and brass ensemble and organ. It was written just after the war and is very melodic. And then it was lost, and then it was republished again in 1985. He was living in Liege, and it just disappeared. It was initially well received when it was first performed in 1946, and then it was performed again in 1948. It then went underground in as much as Jongen himself died and his music remained undiscovered until it was uncovered again. This is a very accessible piece from the middle of the 20th century, but it is very much in a style reminiscent of past church choral history. It is traditional in being a setting of the Latin mass, but it has got a particular harmonic language which makes it stand out. It could not have been written in the 19th century. The choir are really enjoying it as very much a contrast to Rachmaninov’s Vespers.”

Tickets from Chichester Box Office, The Novium, Tower Street, Chichester or 01243 816525 or 775888 or online from www.ticketsource.co.uk/the-chichester-singers.

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