Rachmaninov by candlelight at Petworth Festival

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The Armonico Consort are promising a work of outstanding brilliance when they visit this year’s Petworth Festival.

They will be offering Rachmaninov’s Vespers by candlelight in St Mary’s Church, Petworth on Sunday, July 19 at 8pm (tickets 01798 344576), under founder and artistic director Christopher Monk.

“The Rachmaninov is a piece we have had in the repertoire for ten years now though we have let it lie a little bit. But really, it is the most extraordinary work. We wanted to find a way to bring it to as many people as possible. We started touring it last year, and this is now the second part of the tour.

“As for the work itself, there is not a single choral piece on this planet that is like it or comes close to it. It’s like a perfectly-constructed, dense orchestral piece, but for the voice. Rachmaninov himself was rather bewildered by it. He said something like ‘In my wildest dreams, I could not have imagined I would write such a work!’ He wrote one of the movements, the Nunc Dimittis, for his own funeral – though we don’t know whether it was performed or not.

“But really it is just extraordinary. You could just imagine it being a piano concerto or a really dense violin concerto the writing is so incredibly lush and complicated for the singers. If you took away the words and gave it to a musicologist and said ‘Is it for instrument or voice?’ there is no way he could tell. And that makes it notoriously difficult to perform. It is so unusual for voices. But also there is the language. The use of language. It is something called Church Slavonic. The pronunciation and the concentration of consonants in groupings we are not used to make it very challenging and mean the singers have got to have their virtuosic hats on at every moment. There really isn’t a single moment when they can relax.”

But the rewards are immense: “In terms of melody and harmony and density and sound, it really is so remarkable. It is the single most beautiful choral work that has ever existed, and for it to be 100 years old this year makes it so appropriate that we are doing it now.”

Armonico Consort is one of the largest and most innovative organisations of its kind in the UK. Through concerts such as Supersize Polyphony and Naked Byrd, and operas in new English translations including Too Hot to Handel, Baroque around the Block and Monteverdi’s Flying Circus, Armonico aims to make exciting music accessible for as broad an audience as possible.

The group works with authentic period instruments, performing up to 50 concerts a year across the country and beyond. Highlights of Armonico Consort’s past work include performing The Magic Flute at The Barbican, joining forces with Nicola Benedetti for Vivaldi’s Violin Concertos at the Hampton Court Palace Festival and Carmina Burana with AC Academy singers at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

“I am the founder and the artistic director. We formed about 15 years ago, and we wanted to specialise in finding a way to bring choral music, especially Baroque and Renaissance, to large-scale audience, but in a different spirit of staging and programming. For Petworth, for instance, we will be doing some of it in the round.”

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