Singing Sergey Rachmaninov’s All Night Vigil, also called Vespers, with anything other than a fundament of Russian or Bulgarian basses is a little like playing early music on modern instruments. The authentic sound just can’t be recreated by even the best Western-trained singers. So if you’re a purist, stay home and listen to your CD performance or take a trip to Russia. On the other hand, if you want to hear a remarkable tour de force by the North Carolina Master Chorale (NCMC), formerly the Raleigh Oratorio Society, head off to the Herb Young Community Center in Cary tomorrow afternoon, November 17, at 3 p.m.

Sergey Rachmaninov – the “v” at the end is now the accepted transliteration – composed the Vespers using as a basis chant from both the Russian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox liturgies. The texts are from the Vespers, Matins and Prime services of the Russian Orthodox liturgy. In most of the 15 numbers Rachmaninov used original chant melodies, occasionally employing melodies of his own creation in the character of the chant. Unlike the often flowing monophonic chant of the Roman Catholic liturgy, the Russian Orthodox service employs rich block harmonies that change with each syllable of text.

Rachmaninov broke with tradition by composing his Vespers to a mixed chorus. The traditional Orthodox Church choirs are made up of men and boys; the thinner sound of the children’s voices emphasizes the magnificent low basses. The ancient chants, called Znamenny , sung in Old Church Slavonic, also highlight the contrast. While the beginning of the Vespers closely imitates the original style of the liturgical chant, in later movements, such as in the central Canticle of the Virgin (the Magnificat in Latin), Rachmaninov employs folk and dance rhythms in a refrain for the women’s voices in contrast to the verses chanted by the men.

It is a challenging work to tackle, requiring a large chorus to sing a cappella with frequently non-metric lines. Music director Alfred Sturgis drilled his troops thoroughly to present an overall excellent performance. Entrances were consistently sharp; dynamic shading was effective and dramatic; and intonation was almost always exact, despite some occasional muddiness in the more chromatic passages in which the composer broke with tradition. The only problem was the balance between low and high voices; half the number of sopranos and altos would have given the basses a better chance. But best of all would have been to get in some additional male “ringers” from the community’s excellent competing choruses. Unfortunately, the unequal distribution of voices is a constant headache for even the best community choruses.

A significant addition to the performance was tenor Randall Outland, a singer with worldwide experience, currently on the faculty of Appalachian State University. His solos in three of the chants soared dramatically over the chorus and audience with beautiful intonation and sensitivity to the text. Alto Nancy Brenner, a newcomer to the area and member of NCMC, demonstrated a lovely but small voice in her one solo.

Listening to excellent the performance last night, we thought how lucky we were that Al Sturgis decided not to desert us but to remain in the area.