MusicWeb International's Worldwide Concert and Opera Reviews

 Clicking Google advertisements helps keep MusicWeb subscription-free.

Other Links

Editorial Board

  • Editor - Bill Kenny

  • Founder - Len Mullenger

Google Site Search


Internet MusicWeb



Schnittke, Bortnyansky, Rachmaninov, Chesnokov, Shchedrin: Chamber Choir of the Moscow Conservatory, Boris Tevlin (cond.), Royal College of Music, London, 19.11.09 (GDn)

Schnittke: Concerto for Choir, Three Sacred Songs
Bortnyansky: Sacred Concerto 15
Rachmaninov: Ave Maria, Panteley the Healer
Chesnokov: The Angel Cried
Shchedrin: Tsarskaya Kravchaya, Pugachev’s Execution

Schnittke’s Choir Concerto is the marathon endurance test of the choral repertoire. Its reputation in the West is largely based on its inclusion on the repertoire lists of professional choirs, were it is deemed a mark of near superhuman stamina. The last time I heard the work live, it was performed by the BBC Singers, who devoted an entire concert to it and required substantial breaks between each movement. In Russia, things are different, as this evening’s performance by the Moscow Conservatory Chamber Choir demonstrated. Their performance of the work formed the first half of the concert, included only momentary breaks between movements and, most impressively of all, was sung to a professional standard by a small choir made up of music students.

Not that they made it sound easy. The continuous forty minute duration took its toll, especially on the timbre and intonation in the later movements. The problems towards the end were not too jarring, and even invited empathy, the audience as much as the choir in a state of recovery from the emotionally draining first two movements. Boris Tevlin, the choir’s founder and conductor, comes across as a stern task master, and his interpretation of the concerto has little time for the niceties of phrase sculpting or cadential rubato. Most of his tempos were on the fast side, especially in the first movement, giving the weighty choral stanzas all the more impact. The bass section of the choir was predictably impressive, although this led to a bottom heavy balance, which in combination with the faster tempos occasionally obscured the cantelina obligato lines that Schnittke spins across the soprano parts. An accomplished performance though, and all the more interesting and valuable for coming from the very heart of the Russian choral tradition.

After a mere twenty minutes of recuperation during the interval, the choir returned in the second half to provide a context for Schnittke’s concerto, taking us on a whistle stop tour of the history of Russian Orthodox choral music from the 18th century right up to the present day. Any qualms about intonation or ensemble were immediately forgotten in these shorter works, and the technical standard of the singing was of the highest standard for the whole of the second half. Dmitri Bortnyansky was the earliest name on the programme, a Russian (actually Ukrainian) composer who brought Italian Enlightenment values to the music of the Orthodox Church at the bequest of Catherine the Great. These Italian touches bring a surprising lightness of step to the Orthodox traditions, and the nimbleness and stylistic sensitivity of the choir really allowed this southern spirit to shine through. The two Rachmaninov works were clearly standard repertoire for the choir, who performed them with impressive conviction and from memory. Pavel Chesnikov was a choral composer whose career in liturgical music was cut short by the revolution. The work presented here was sung magnificently by an unnamed soprano, and demonstrated that it wasn’t just Rachmaninov who was writing accessible choral music for the Orthodox Church at the start of the 20th century. Schnittke’s Three Sacred Songs were allegedly written in a single night. They don’t pose anything like the physical demands of his concerto, but demonstrate just as effectively the composer’s deep engagement with the Orthodox choral traditions. Two pieces by Rodion Shchedrin brought the programme up to the present day. These works were the first of the evening to diverge from the homogeneous textures associated with Russian church music. Not that he is ever too far from those traditions, but it was refreshing to hear music in which the Orthodox traditions are treated as evocative source material rather than a solemn obligation.

What then followed was something of a gala, with almost half an hour of encores, the Flight of the Bumble Bee, folksong arrangements, a negro spiritual... they even danced a tango. All admirably versatile, and a taste of how choral concerts are conducted in Eastern Europe. But it was a slightly irrelevant distraction from the intense spirituality of the preceding works and a suspiciously Soviet coda to and an otherwise richly Russian programme.

Gavin Dixon

Back to Top                                                    Cumulative Index Page