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Great Russian Sacred Music

Birmingham Bach Choir at Birmingham Cathedral

19 November 2016
David Hart - Brimgham Post

For some choirs and audiences, music for the Russian Orthodox Church begins and ends with Rachmaninov's Vespers. Of course it doesn't, as this enterprising concert indicated. On paper Paul Spicer's wide-ranging selection of compositions by several unfamiliar names (alongside Rachmaninov himself and some make-weight Prokofiev) might have been expected to reveal a plethora of music styles; what we heard, though, was music of tradition expressed in traditional ways. Some of it seemed more worthy than inspired - Berezovsky's motet Do Not Reject Me in My Old Age, although quite unlike European music of the 18th century, was a particularly long-winded example.

Even Schnittke's 1964 version of the Lord's Prayer, despite its contemporary tonality, had more Orthodox roots clearly showing; and Anton Viskov's Rejoice, Nicholas, Great Miracle Worker (the only work by a living composer) sounded like a homage to a bygone age and not at all modern.

There were also comparisons to be made. Chesnokov's setting of The Great Doxology demonstrated a refreshing directness of approach and clarity in his textures. Kastalsky, on the other hand, made greater use of extended ranges, especially the distinctive basso profundo.

And how well the choral demands were met. Throughout an exhausting programme of unaccompanied singing the Bach Choir hardly faltered under Spicer's empowering direction, shaping every phrase with subtlety and tonal nuances, enunciating the Russian texts with impressive fluency and, in the many declamatory passages (tenors resplendently strong, basses plunging the depths like the genuine Russian article), sounding awesomely impressive.

Martyn Rawles offered respite with three organ voluntaries, the best being Glazunov's Fantasy Op.110, where Rawles' deft registration did much to reflect its logical sense of progression.