How times change. Only a few decades ago, sacred music, if it was heard at all in Russia, was presented in a strictly secular concert setting, and even in many cases with the texts altered to reduce their religious significance. Today though, the Orthodox Church is an influential and highly visible player in Russian public life. So much so that performances of sacred music often take on a ritualistic, even liturgical, dimension of their own. This concert, part of an annual series marking the period of Great Lent in the Orthodox calendar, took place in St Petersburg’s Philharmonic Hall, about as secular a venue as one could imagine, although a Soviet-era bust of Bach in the foyer is clearly intended for veneration of some kind. The music too was presented with full religious honours. An Orthodox priest, resplendent in his flowing robes, spoke before each work, not so much to introduce the music as to remind the audience (congregation?) of the religious significance of the texts. And each work was received fully in that spirit, with the audience retaining a reverential air throughout.

Ivan Moody © Paige Baker
Ivan Moody
© Paige Baker

Curiously though, Valentin Silvestrov’s Requiem is a highly postmodern take on the form, and not an obvious choice for such reverential treatment. The work is, technically at least, a setting of the Requiem text, and for the first ten minutes or so it sets the words in a way that might make it suitable for liturgical use. But then it veers off into more ambient realms, reflective perhaps of personal beliefs, but hardly the direct and communal expressions required of liturgy. Silvestrov’s music, here and elsewhere, is all about belatedness. He creates a sense of historical context by often working in an 18th- or 19th-century idiom, but then applying more modern techniques to demonstrate how antiquated those former styles have become. Here, his setting of the Requiem texts often channels those of Fauré, Verdi and Berlioz (the more lyrical passages in those last two settings), but many of the movements are followed by long orchestral postludes where the tonality is blurred and the whole atmosphere becomes more ambiguous. There are also some extended quotes from Mozart (I’m not sure what, but not the Requiem). These are subjected to complex stretto patterns in the strings and, quite inexplicably, accompanied by a wind machine. Some of the writing is very elegant, especially for the choir, which is used in some original ways, but overall the piece remained puzzling.

Only to me, though, it seems. Apparently the Silvestrov Requiem is a real favourite here, and this performance was about the fourth it has received in St Petersburg this year alone. The devout audiences clearly don’t hear Silvestrov’s postmodern tricks as distancing, and certainly not as satire. So perhaps postmodern is the wrong word. The piece clearly expresses things to Orthodox ears that, for the rest of us, must remain a mystery. The performance by these Estonian forces was good, although the choir outclassed the orchestra, who had occasional ensemble problems. But, like the audience, everybody onstage was clearly deep in the spirit of the work, and the performance was appropriately Slavic in all the best senses.

Ivan Moody’s Passion and Resurrection here received its Russian première. As befits the music of an Anglophone composer who is also an Orthodox priest, the work sets Gospel texts in English, but to music that bears strong allegiance to Orthodox traditions. The setting is for soprano, tenor (the Evangelist), bass (Christ), string orchestra, tubular bells, and choir. Like the Silvestrov, it is a piece that requires a good deal of empathy on the part of non-believers, with music that can only be approached via the text and not around it. Most of the Passion narrative is told in what sounds a lot like Anglican non-metrical chant over long, long pedals from the cellos and basses. Tenor Anto Onnis had the lion’s share of the work here. His voice is light but projects well and his diction is excellent. He tired towards the end, but that’s understandable. Priit Volmer has an appropriately authoritative bass voice for Christ. Both sung in a very Estonian-tinged English, and their vowels in particular took some getting used to, but the text was all clearly rendered. Ukrainian soprano Olga Zasadna had little to sing, but complemented the other soloists well.

However Anglican the recitative may have sounded, the choral writing was unmistakably Orthodox. Moody has a real gift for working within this tradition, yet making his choral music sound fresh and alive. The tone of the choral writing was particularly effective in articulating the narrative from death to resurrection, and the (admittedly extended) celebratory music at the end was a real highlight. Well sung too, and from a choir with the stamina to keep going at this intensity well past 11pm.

For all that, it is difficult to envisage a place for this music in a more secular setting. Moody is not out to entertain audiences who have no interest in the text, as tends to be the case with performances of sacred music in the West. However, in this pseudo-sacred setting, somewhere between concert performance and full religious observance, it was the ideal music for the occasion.