Classical music: From Russia with love

THE SACRED muse who has so tenaciously embraced British music lovers for the past five or so years is no newcomer to St Petersburg.

Nikolai Korniev is the leader, founder and conductor of the 21-year-old St Petersburg Chamber Choir and he tells me that liturgical music has held sway among the city's musical minions "for decades, even during the Soviet period".

Although he adds: "It is very difficult to compare it with the present time because there is a crisis in practically every sphere of our lives." Which is what you will hear on virtually every street corner in a city ready to be rediscovered.

And yet even among the pitted roads, rusty Ladas and Communist concrete monsters (mostly on the city's outskirts), music still has its place. The collapse of Communist bureaucracy has meant that musicians can perform anywhere they like, without the need for written permission.

Audiences, too, retain a healthy love of listening. Korniev recounts a recent success where a three-hour Bach marathon consisting of organ and chorus chorales held its audience captive: "You might have expected half of them to leave after the interval," he says, "but none of them did."

Korniev runs a tight ship, with as few as two or three personnel changes during a single season, "otherwise you cannot preserve your interpretative tradition."

Future plans extend to a local cantata and oratorio festival that will embrace such diverse themes as "The three Antonios" (Vivaldi, Lori and Caldera), the unfamiliar Requiems of Donizetti, Saint-Saens and Schumann, and Mendelssohn's Elijah.

Furthermore, the Choir will travel to Max Reger's family home at Weiden to perform Reger's rarely-heard Three Sacred Songs, Op 110, and in Rome they will sing Bach to the attenuated tones of period instruments.

Korniev has collaborated with Mikhail Pletnev in Scriabin's Prometheus and plans to sing Rachmaninov's The Bells and Choruses under Vladimir Ashkenazy; but his approach to Rachmaninov's Vespers is, by his own admission, "very different to the way other choirs perform it in Russia.

"I see this music from the point of view of metric polyphony," he says. "I think in terms of tones and timbres, and I consider that the most interesting moments occur when the voice changes its tone."

He makes meaningful comparisons with the differentiated sonorities of a symphony orchestra; but then why use the term "chamber" choir?

He says: "My aim is to preserve the individual timbre of the voice, as in chamber music. "Having a collective of 40 allows me to do a lot of work with each singer, and nurture different sorts of groups, whether for Bach or Rachmaninov."

Some of his members perform in competitions or sing solo at the Mariinsky Theatre and his listeners include many young people, although he ponders the need for a more precise analysis of who listens to the choir, and why.

So when the St Petersburg Chamber Choir packs St Paul's Cathedral on Tuesday for Rachmaninov's Vespers - as it surely will - might we expect to hear a gentle Russian encore?

Korniev shakes his head: "I want to stress the thematic line of a whole programme, not place any undue stress on the last section. We must be truthful to our artistic intentions, and to the audience, too."