Back in the pre-digital era, there was room for only one recording of Rachmaninov's Vespers at a time. But now in the digital era, there have been more than a dozen recordings of the work. Most of these have been performed by Russian choirs, some have been performed by English or American choirs, and a few have been recorded by choirs of other nationalities. But the Russians have always sung the best Vespers -- who can beat their low B flats and their unshakeable faith in the music? -- and, fine as they often are, most non-Russian choirs have never quite achieved the same level of greatness and grandeur as the Russians.
Until now. With this recording of Rachmaninov's Vespers by the Finnish National Opera Chorus under the direction of Eric-Olof Söderström, there is finally a non-Russian performance to match the Russians. The Finnish choir has the stark strength, the imposing tone, the magisterial command of the Russian choirs. More importantly, they have the same faith in the score's musical worth and spiritual profundity and their performance does achieve the same level of greatness and grandeur as the Russians. But, most interestingly, the Finnish choir achieves perhaps greater clarity than any Russian choir and there are things in this performance -- details of line and texture -- that one never hears in the richer, riper Russian performances. While one should certainly hear at least one Russian performance of the Vespers, this Finnish performance would certainly be a welcome addition to any Rachmaninov shelf. Naxos' 2001 sound is deep and lucid.