St Paul's Orthodox thinking

Russia's St Nicholas Choir perform a Rachmaninov liturgy at the London cathedral
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The Independent Culture

St Paul's Cathedral hosts an extraordinary fusion of Eastern and Western Christian tradition with the first full British performance of Rachmaninov's Liturgy of St John Chrysostom on 10 September.

St Paul's Cathedral hosts an extraordinary fusion of Eastern and Western Christian tradition with the first full British performance of Rachmaninov's Liturgy of St John Chrysostom on 10 September.

For the first time, the towering gothic aisles of St Paul's will echo to the ethereally haunting strains of the Russian Orthodox devotional tradition of liturgical music.

The event has been organised by the London-based cultural charity Academia Rossica and sees the return, after two years, of Moscow's world-renowned St Nicholas Choir. Their second St Paul's concert will also have symbolic religious undertones, as the cathedral hosts a Russian Orthodox liturgy, an integral part of Rachmaninov's signature religious opus.

"The choir's performance two years ago was breathtakingly beautiful, and this presentation of Rachmaninov's Liturgy - a great choral work composed specially for liturgical use - promises to be even more powerful," says the dean of St Paul's, Dr John Moses.

Rachmaninov's Opus 31 is a magnificent fusion of traditional Russian spirituality with the cultural aesthetics of Russia's Silver Age at the turn of the 20th century. Integral to the work are the solo incantations by an Orthodox priest - in this case by Father Nikolai, who is priest-in-charge at the St Nicholas Church at Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery, a unique symbiosis of church and art gallery. For Father Nikolai, who is part of a line of priests stretching back 300 years, the Rachmaninov Liturgy, derived from fourth-century liturgical text, is the most sacred of musical compositions for the church: "I pray quietly, in secret, and then pronounce the last word of each prayer, rounding it off with a firm 'Amen' to connect each part with the next."

All the singers are alumni of Russia's leading musical talent schools, including Moscow's Conservatoire and Gnesinsky Institute. It is the only professional concert choir performing the Russian synodic plainchant, an unaccompanied idiom that ranges from the seraphically high soprano to the improbably deep Russian basso profundo.

"The human voice is the most perfect instrument ever created by God to talk to Him," says the piece's conductor, Aleksei Pouzakov. "We try to stick to tradition, but we always bring the personal into our performances. It's a breath of life, a spiritual mystery in the voice. It is always a miracle to hear and utter the sounds of the sacred, a personal conversation with God."

This second visit of the St Nicholas choir promises to match and perhaps surpass the first, for the Orthodox liturgy is wonderfully suited to St Paul's superb acoustics. As John Scott, who is about to retire as head of music, puts it: "I have never heard anything like this in my life - you get the same quality sound in any spot. It is unbelievable; the sound fills the whole church."

The Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, St Paul's Cathedral, London EC4 (020-8340 9591; www.academia-rossica.org), 10 September

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