Arts: From Russia, with style

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RUSSIAN MUSICIANS in search of hard currency have added spice to London's concert life in recent years, challenging cosy Western ways with performances that elevate passion and commitment to cardinal virtues. Two fine chamber choirs (one devoted to ethnic sacred music, the other a formidable force in mainstream repertoire) proved the worth of such international musical trafficking, offering clear lessons to those who fancy the worldwide supremacy of the English choral tradition.

Moscow's Sirin Choir deals in ancient Orthodox chants and pesen zemlyi, popular songs of heaven and earth. Its female members wear colourful peasant costume, their male colleagues favouring clerical robes. They produce a raw, harsh-edged sound, shot through with folkish mordents and blessed with astonishing carrying power.

Dressing up in tinfoil crowns, wielding playground swords and chanting like Aberdonian fish auctioneers on speed may not be the essence of "cool", but the genuine feeling carried in the group's staged version of the Massacre of the Innocents stirred profound emotions, as did the mystical male-voice "Hymn of the Cherubim" and "Song to Sirin".

The City of London Festival, upwardly mobile over the past three seasons, opened last week with a masterstroke of programming. Although Rachmaninov's Vespers was not quite proof against the whispering echoes of St Paul's, the combination of solemn liturgical music, Wren's monumental architecture, eventide candlelight and a richly expressive performance offset any loss of clarity in the work's most detailed polyphonic moments.

Collective nerves took a while to settle, as did the pitch; however, once the 40-strong St Petersburg Chamber Choir found its stride it could hardly be faulted. Hearing macho Russian second basses glide down to produce powerful, focused bottom B flats and make anything beneath the stave sound comfortable is chastening enough for the average British choral baritone.

But these prime examples of the species do the job with style. The choir's upper line betrayed no trace of women attempting to mimic boys' voices; the young-looking St Petersburg sopranos produced vibrant, colourful tone. This was choral sound with a strong foundation, beautifully homogeneous centre and characterful top, the antithesis of the Oxbridge model and yet its equal in discipline. Nikolai Korniev's conducting accounted for the acoustics without allowing the performance to sag, his gestures accomplished and shaped to get the best from an unaccompanied choir. If anyone had neglected the sacred significance of music and place, Korniev surely jogged their memories with a captivating delivery of Rachmaninov's "Praise the Name of the Lord".

Andrew Stewart