Q: All of the, well, most of the repertoire that we discussed this afternoon has been repertoire with orchestral accompaniment, of course, not in the case of the Bernstein you just referred to, but there is a major recording that you produced just a couple of years ago of a cappella music by Sergei Rachmaninoff The Vespers. Now am I correct when I sense that this is a really important recording, as far as you're concerned?
RS: Oh yeah, very much, Howard. It's not only that now I've retired from the active music directorship at the Atlanta Symphony that I have time for a few more choral pieces than the orchestral pieces, but in terms of my own orchestral experience, I've done the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerti. I've not done the Symphonies. I've done some of the dance things that are very vital, and I must say that in the study that I was able to put together with this piece and find out as much as I could about the chant of the Eastern Church, I came to the conclusion that Rachmaninoff was a - well, the study of this particular piece, and its performances in France in the acoustical splendors of the Romanesque churches in our area of France, the twelfth and thirteenth century romanesque churches, hearing it under those acoustical conditions and recording it under those conditions, made me again - wakened an enthusiasm for all of Rachmaninoff's music, and a seriousness, an intensify of sort of commitment to it that I hadn't felt simply in the sort of "sturm und drang" of the Piano Concerti, and having done some of that stuff with Van Cliburn and such in the early days. It's given to - .the orchestral music in my way of thinking for me - a whole new depth of humanity that I hadn't - again, you know, like I missed Verdi in the early, I feel I missed Rachmaninoff too, and that I hadn't credited him enough. I'd been too critical and too clinical and not nearly enough sensitive to his qualities.
We have, over in France, if everything goes well, and we've had it for three years in a row, the best choir I've ever met in my life. It's not uniformly as vocally talented as some of the early Shaw Chorale professional choirs were, who'd made records. The Shaw Chorales that went on the road were not quite of the same individual solo talent as the choruses you could gather together in New York for recording, which was a better financial proposition for the people than going on the road, and so those recording choirs were made up of very superior voices.
But this choir is made up largely of conductors: sixty people, thirty men and thirty woman, and substantially fifteen - fifteen - fifteen - and fifteen, and 85% of them are conductors, but of that 85%, I suppose nearly 100% of them have had a lot of vocal training, and so it's a chorus that is extraordinarily fast musically. And in so far as you have 60 voices now instead of sort of 30, which was the recording size of the RS Chorale in most of its recordings, it's a slightly bigger sound and somewhat handsomer, just simply because of size and because of the acoustics over there. So the study and performance of the Rachmaninoff Vespers was an experience which I had never had before.
We made the chorus, and saw that it was heavily based. If we had 15 basses, which I think we finally ended up with 16 basses and 14 tenors, but at least 7 of our basses had low C, and one of them had a G below low C, and several had B-flats or A-flats, so it was almost a Russian-type sonority that I remember from hearing the full "Glorico" choruses in Russia. It had that sort of quality. And we tried to imitate a little bit - we studied our Russian language very carefully, and tried to imitate a little bit the guttural sort of sonority. We got it so far that Mr. Woods didn't - we got it farther than he wanted, and I'm sorry we didn't really go ahead and hold to that because I think it would have given it a little more of authentic quality. But I don't know how - we were just very, very lucky that somehow that everything worked in recording, because we arrived at recording in a church situation with the - completely tired, and recording at night. We’d hear trucks going by, and we’d have to stop and begin all over again, and somehow, I've never heard any intonation like that, any choral intonation as like as is on that recording. It's beyond me how these people could hold it for six hours and do that kind of intonation, time after time.
We recorded in a new set-up that I'd never recorded in before, and that is, there was a single pencil mike straight up in the air about, I suppose, 14, 15 feet. And the choir was arranged in a circle in two rows, but in a complete circle, a solid circle, about 12 feet from the mike. And the 2nd row would be raised on the pews, standing on church pews, but would be raised another 2 feet, so you had substantially - the choir was maybe 30 to 40 feet across, maybe 12 to 15 feet to 16 feet in radius, and so everybody was equally positioned from the mike. And the conductor could only face half of the choir at a time, and went barefoot because it would be quiet if he moved. And occasionally you could hear the conductor grunt maybe a little, not much. This conductor breathes a lot and gets excited about accentuation and such, and so he's liable to make a little inadvertent noise, but that slowed us down occasionally in our recording, but substantially the thing that happened was what happens with great string quartets, that nobody leads. Everybody follows or everybody is leading, one or the other.
And so they were picking up phrasing from across from one another, and they were moderately in sections, that is, each circle was sectionalized. You'd have 6 or 7 sopranos standing next to 6 or 7 altos, standing next them. Then the next group would be tenors and basses. But the 2nd row in back of them might have all the men in back of the women in the front row and all the women in back of men in the front row of the other one, so that they were hearing every part, constantly, and the little interplay of crescendi and dimenuendi are the thing that just brings tears to my eyes, because it's a chamber music, on a scale that I'd never experienced before.
One hopes that when you make records, obviously when we have a choir of 200 and an orchestra of 100, somebody's got to lead, you know, and somebody's got to follow. But one hopes that one gets sort of a chamber music feel and a discipline, even out of the 200-voice group, so that one can sort of make a minimal gesture, but the other people are making the music. But here it actually happened.
I haven't played it, I suppose, for 4 or 5 months now, but it's the only one of my recordings I remember playing more than zero, and I've played it two or three times, and I'm very moved by it each time I hear it.