A simple stage was set up, with music stands for the choir in a semicircle and one for the conductor. The Russian Patriarchate Choir came on stage to big applause and started to sing, creating a powerful and authentic sound. In a programme of Orthodox sacred music, folk songs and works by composers from old Russia, choir founder Anatoly Grindenko took Bristol’s Colston Hall into the mesmerising world of unaccompanied Russian male vocals.

Russian Patriarchate Choir of Moscow
Russian Patriarchate Choir of Moscow

The choir consists of twelve singers – as is traditional in the Russian Orthodox church – hered dressed in full-length black gowns. Founded in Trotse-Sergiyeva Lavra (near Moscow) in 1983, the choir has initiated the rediscovery of Orthodox church music, which was suppressed for decades during the Soviet regime. The choir spent their time decoding ancient manuscripts whilst Russian Orthodox church music was not approved by the government, and gave some of the first performances in the country of works that had been lost for centuries. When the Soviet Union collapsed, they were able to perform internationally, sharing their music with a worldwide audience.

This Bristol concert, the last in the choir’s UK tour, opened with The Prophecy of Isaiah, where a bass soloist sang the prophecy over a vocal drone from the tenors which opened like the petals of a flower into colourful harmony in many parts. This piece was followed by Psalm 1, Psalm 14 and Hymn to the Mother of God, all very similar in style, starting with a drone. The soloist who sang Psalm 14 had absolute dynamic control over his voice and sang a technically difficult low note impressively quietly at the end of the piece.

Anatoly Grindeko’s conducting style was understated and elegant. With perfect pitch, he hummed the starting notes before each work. Between the twelve men there was a range of different voices, each with its own personality. The voices ranged from a deep, guttural bass sound to a high-pitched vibrato that echoed around the hall.

Instruments were forbidden from Russian liturgical music and so the use of a glockenspiel for the second half of the programme, which was solely folksongs from Old Russia, seemed appropriate to aid the divide between secular and sacred music and to end the concert on a high. The rhythms and shouts of “hey” provided a lively second half, nicely contrasted to the shiver-inducing church music and Russian Romantic sacred music.

Rachmaninov’s Anaphora felt rather out of place in the first half despite being in amongst works by Gontcharov and Bortnyasky, perhaps because rather than having one generally defined mood, it had three noticeably different sections. One of the most moving pieces was Thou art the joy by Popov-Platonov. The soothing opening was like a choral lullaby, using dynamics to full effect. The climax of the piece was impactful as the choir reached full volume after a slow build-up. The choir was captivatingly emotional in their performances, particularly in the first half of the concert. It was clear that the years of research that had been invested into the performance by the choir had a profound effect on the amount of passion injected into the performance. The focus was definitely more on expression than accurate technicalities, though all of the singers appeared to have impeccable technique. They were able either to project or to hold a very soft whisper of a note, and many of the solos were sang from memory.

There has recently been a lot of Russian music at Colston Hall, but this was undoubtedly the best performance I have seen this concert season. It was refreshing to see lesser-known Russian music that was new to our ears and away from Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and other familiar Russian composers.