I use the word "great" with extreme caution: very few people, and very few pieces of music, achieve greatness. It’s often unclear, moreover, what constitutes greatness: it can be something you feel more instinctually than you can demonstrate analytically. But – to my mind, at least – not only is Rautavaara’s Vigilia (1971) a great piece of music, but it is a relatively straightforward task to put the finger on the sources of its communicative urgency.
First, as with a number of similar works – most obviously Rachmaninov’s Vespers and Sviridov’s Hymns and Prayers, both written, like Vigilia, for the Orthodox Church – it derives much of its emotional power from the tension between the formality of the format and the passion, indeed, ecstasy, expressed within those formal structures. Second, it is written for voices – the most direct form of music-making – with the alternation of soloists and choral sections pulling in the listener as if in some Ur-drama drawn from the deeper wells of human awareness.
Third, the largely syllabic setting enhances that sense of narrative immediacy: you don’t have to speak Finnish to be swept along by the sense of the epic that is generated by this combination of text and music; indeed, if you are forced to listen to the Finnish as a kind of metalanguage, the words acquire an unintended universality to match that of the music.
Lastly, there is Rautavaara’s extraordinary music: this concert version is pared down from the liturgical version that, including the verbal component of its church service, runs through the night, but we are still left with an hour and 11 minutes of some of the most moving music to have been written by any recent composer. Again and again, Rautavaara seems to find his way entirely naturally to a succession of harmonies of exquisite beauty – there’s no more artefact than in the growth of a plant. His particular blend of mild dissonance and modal resolution is familiar from his orchestral music, of course, but the purity of its expression here makes it especially powerful and affecting.
You may think that 71 minutes of a cappella choral recitative, divided into 34 short sections, is hardly likely to engage the attention over so long a stretch, but Rautavaara constantly rings the textural changes – in the choral writing itself and in the interchange between soloists and chorus – so that the ear is constantly refreshed.
The first solo voice heard is that of the tenor Niall Chorell, sounding rather like a liturgical version of Wagner’s Loge, with something slightly impish in his delivery; but then comes the voice that steals the show, that of the bass Tuukka Haapaniemi, whose range has to be heard to be believed: he can dive to the depths of a Russian octavist and then sweep up a couple of octaves to deliver a line in the most mellifluous baritone, and whenever he starts to sing, the ears prick up in expectation of further marvels.
The Helsinki Chamber Choir under Nils Schwenkendiek deliver a reading of absolute technical security; when they open up, ff, into a full-textured resolution at the crest of a line, the heart swells in its cage and is swept away, unprotesting, with the spate of the emotions being given their head. The BIS recorded sound is of crystalline purity, and Varvara Merras-Väyrynen contributes a helpful booklet essay.
Repetition in any religious ceremony serves the same primitive purpose, and for all the sophistication of Rautavaara’s harmonic language, what he is doing here, basically, is weaving a spell – and I defy you not to be hypnotised by the unearthly beauty of this wonderful music. It cleanses the soul.
Niall Chorell (tenor), Tuukka Haapaniemi (bass), Helsinki Chamber Choir; cond. Nils Schwenkendiek