They look intense in their dark apparel, and the sound they produce rings back down the ages: when the Sretensky Monastery Choir appears at Cadogan Hall next week – and follows it with a mass in one of London's Russian Orthodoc churches – people will hear a timeless expression of the Russian soul. Nowadays there are quite a few Russian choirs around, but this one, which rarely tours abroad, is special.
As its spokesman Father Pavel Shcherbatov explains, it may only have been going for 10 years, but its history goes back to 1395, when the monastery to which it is attached was founded to commemorate victory over Tartar invaders.
Situated in central Moscow, and drawing on a huge parish whose members' donations now keep it afloat, the Sretensky Monastery bears the scars of many struggles. In 1917 it was taken over by the Bolsheviks; the battle which this tour is designed to celebrate culminated in the reunification of the Russian Orthodox church. Most of the choristers are music graduates, some are professional icon-painters, some are seminarists.
Their Easter chant, "I have beheld the resurrection of Christ", represents medieval polyphony at its most seductive: the vocal lines are strong, the harmonies rugged, and the swelling climaxes have a liberating intensity.
But as Father Pavel stresses, they don't limit themselves to ecclesiastical chants: "We want to give audiences an idea of the Russian spirit in all its forms, so we do folk songs and romances and even Soviet songs – which were often a sublimation of the people's officially-proscribed religious feelings."
He gives as an example a song in which a much-decorated Soviet soldier returns to his village after the war, and finds it deserted – and everyone dead – whereupon he starts addressing his wife's spirit. "Our sense of eternal life has always been very strong," he says.
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