This evening’s concert took Russian Orthodox music out of the church and into the theatre: not a natural setting, but one offering a range of new possibilities. The event was the culmination of the second St. Romanos Melodos International Composers Competition. The first competition, in 2012, included categories for small, accompanied choral compositions and longer a cappella liturgical settings. This time round, the competition has expanded its ambitions, and the works presented here included a choral work with full orchestral accompaniment and, most remarkably, sections of a grand opera based on Orthodox liturgical styles.

The theatre itself is spectacular. Set within one of the palaces that make up the Hermitage, it’s a compact but extravagant rococo gem. Obviously designed with opera in mind, the venue has a pit that was just big enough for the orchestra, although some percussion spilled onto the stage, which was otherwise taken up with the sizable choir. The State Hermitage Orchestra is the resident ensemble here, although some of the young faces in the ranks suggested it had been bolstered with students. The choir was from the St Petersburg Conservatory, clearly a school that takes liturgical singing very seriously, as the standards were high and the singers were obviously accustomed to the challenges they faced.

© Nikita Matveev
© Nikita Matveev

The concert opened with The Beatitudes by Vladimir Martynov, one of the jurors of the competition. Although he is not out to deliberately generate controversy, Martynov’s extreme aesthetic has made him a divisive figure in recent decades. An author and philosopher too, he has written extensively on the reasons for his rejection of Modernism and his adoption of a seemingly naive and straightforward style. As a composer, he succeeds because of the obvious seriousness of his intent, especially in his choral music, which works within the Orthodox traditions, and without ever giving the impression that he is “going back” to anything. This work is a simple unaccompanied choral setting, with three soprano solo lines supported by long pedals from the remainder of the ensemble: a clear and focussed musical statement performed with precision and considerable elegance.

Prokhor Protasov’s Song of St. Sergius of Radonezh was one of the prize-winning works from the competition. The texts are prescribed in each of the categories, and the composers have to negotiate the multiple demands of apposite word-setting, stylistic suitability, and innovation. A conservatism is perhaps inevitable, but the winning entries, both for this and the previous competition, have been impressively varied and consistently musical. Protasov’s score is in a rich, Romantic vein, the choral writing very much within the Orthodox traditions, but the writing for orchestra freer and rarely limited to the status of accompaniment. The work gave the impression of an Orthodox version of a German Catholic choral setting of the late Romantic era, Brahms say, or Bruckner. The variety and colour in the orchestral writing suggested the former, and the devout yet symphonic choral writing the latter. Conservative, then, but written with an excellent command of the choral and orchestral forces, and with what seemed an effortless mastery of the chosen style.

The opera fragments that closed the performance were from a work entitled The Tale of Peter and Fevroniya of Murom. The work is, or will be, a collaborative piece, the libretto by novelist Lyudmila Razumovskaya, set by a number of composers, each taking charge of a different scene. So far, the work consists of an overture, a short scena between the two main characters, and a spectacular choral finale, marking their wedding celebration.

The librettist came to the stage to introduce the work and her speech made for unsettling listening, at least to liberal ears. The opera celebrates the institution of marriage, something Razumovskaya feels is under threat, and with it the entire nation. The Western press is apparently to blame, along with abortion and feminism. Fortunately, her libretto takes a more positive approach, extolling the virtues of divinely ordained matrimony through a 16th century tale by Ermolai Pregreshny. The musical setting too, was thankfully free of sanctimony or dogma.

Its two composers, Ilya Demutsky and Polina Nazaikinskaya, have taken a bold and Romantic approach to the story, all grand orchestral gestures and sweeping melodic lines. Again, the musical style here goes back to the 19th century, and, in operatic terms, the work, as it stands, promises to be coherent and engaging when  complete. The overture is short and punchy, with plenty of Slavonic flavour. The scena between the two principal characters is in the grand opera tradition, and the young singers here, Olga Georgieva and Ilya Kuzmin, gave impressive performances, although Georgieva’s intonation was shaky in the lower register. And the finale is a spectacular send-off, where the Orthodox roots of the music are finally allowed to shine through in the choral writing. The fragments were given a dramatic, and highly driven, performance under the baton of Fabio Mastrangelo. He and the ensemble obviously believe in this music, and through their committed and passionate reading were able to make the best possible case for it.