Holst Singers: Radiant Light (Concert Review - Russian Art and Culture, 2014)

The Holst Singers are one of Britain’s foremost choirs, having garnered many glowing reviews from the likes of the BBC and the Times. They are interested in lesser known repertoire, and in this concert they tackled an array of religious music by Russian and East European composers. Some of the composers, such as Rachmaninov or Rimsky-Korsakov are certainly well-known, however this part of their oeuvre is probably heard less frequently. The programme included a section of Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil, a composition that was said to be one of his favourites and which he composed in 1915. Its premiere was intended to benefit the war effort, so it is an apt choice for this centenary year.

Opening the evening was Nikolai Golovanov’s setting for Our Father, a fitting prelude for what was to follow, with soaring notes balanced by low bass lines. Better known as a Soviet composer, Golovanov’s 23 sacred works were among the last pieces he composed before the 1917 Revolution. The most represented composer in the programme was Aleksandr Gretchaninov. A protégé of Rimsky-Korsakov – whose meditative Our Father was also performed – Gretchaninov was passionate about liturgical music and his choral output was extremely prolific. His All-Night Vigil predated Rachmaninov’s by three years and it is a bold, vivid piece, written on a grand scale. It was his interpretation of The Creed however that stood out during this evening’s programme, with its opportunity for the alto soloist to shine in beautiful soaring passages. Viktor Kalinnikov was present with two pieces. His Rejoice, O Virgin is only one minute long and its expressive power is born of the dynamic contrast between the bass line and the meditative melody of the upper voice parts.

The concert concluded on a contemporary note with two Polish composers. Pawel Lukaszewski’s Nunc dimittis was composed in 2007 especially for the conductor of the Holst Singers, Stephen Layton, one of his most enthusiastic British proponents. It is an example of Lukaszewski’s virtuosity in bringing new interpretations to familiar themes. Henryk Gorecki’s Totus Tuus brought the evening to an elegant close, with the layered repetition of its short yet ecstatic invocation.

This lesser known a cappella repertoire, combined with the setting and acoustics of Temple Church made for a memorable evening. With the voice as their only instrument, the Holst Singers demonstrated perfect control, navigating elegantly between soaring notes, whispered invocations and grave bass lines. These almost unearthly sounds rising and falling among the high arches of Temple Church were the perfect accompaniment to one of the first summer evenings of the year. Let’s hope there will be many more!

By Alexandra Chiriac