Rachmaninoff’s Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom and Faure’s Requiem

The Swedish Radio Choir at the Mostly Mozart Festival on Wednesday, August 8.

Russian choral music has a wonderfully distinct sound. Anchored by unusually rich, low bass voices, the music feels grounded and earthy yet, at its best, mystical as well, as if the music were spanning the spectrum of sound, all-encompassing, all-embracing. It’s glorious.

The Swedish Radio Choir never quite attained that glory when they performed selections from Rachmaninoff’s Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom Wednesday night. Maybe the not-particularly-live hall dulled the basso profondo sound and muffled the overtones. Maybe a man must have grown up in the Russian Orthodox Church to truly exemplify its musical traditions. Maybe the choir members simply haven’t lived and breathed the work, let it soak into their pores, into their consciousness and unconsciousness, the way you must to bring that music to life inside you. Whatever the reason, the Liturgy never took flight. It wasn’t bad, but it didn’t transport me. I felt marooned in my seat.

Perhaps it’s not fair, the way I expect transcendence from music. But knowing how affecting it can be—how intimately, powerfully, soulfully moving—it’s hard to accept anything less. Choral music, in particular, has such potential. Hearing human beings working in concert, using their own bodies, their tongues, their lips, their very breath, to create something more beautiful than any one of them—it’s profound. It’s deeply moving, and when the music falls short, it’s deeply disappointing.

Nothing about the concert was bad, but it left me so unsatisfied. Even after the choir moved on to Fauré, for which it was probably better suited, it delivered a series of small but disenchanting letdowns. The bass soloist’s vowels were too wide. The chamber accompaniment might have been authentic, but it sorely lacked the lush grandeur of Fauré’s later, more familiar arrangement for full orchestra. Most frustrating, the choir lacked spark and color. The tone didn’t spin and sometimes felt as though it were slouching just underneath the center of the pitch. There was no life under the breath.

And frankly, Fauré’s Requiem demands that missing ethereal quality. Unlike other famous Requiems—Mozart’s, Brahms’, Verdi’s—Fauré’s Requiem is always at peace. Never raging, never grieving, it is music for innocents and angels. The best performances are like glimpses of another world. The elegant harmonies escape the bounds of traditional Western tonality yet never lose their center. The melodies spool forth, unhindered, unending, like gently running water.

This is music that doesn’t make sense unless the performance is heavenly. But for all their skill, the musicians couldn’t achieve that, couldn’t take flight. Not bad wasn’t nearly good enough. The Fauré Requiem, as performed Wednesday night, was a beautiful, golden-throated songbird locked in a gilded cage.

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