12 June is Russia Day – a day celebrating the formation of the current Russian Federation in 1991 – and to mark it this year, a series of musical events was arranged in European capitals; it was London’s good fortune to be given a concert by the Sveshnikov Russian State Academic Choir (formed in 1936) under their conductor Evgeny Volkov, and featuring the Kirov Opera baritone and director, Yuri Laptev.
The concert featured a selection of Russian religious choral classics, including a Degtyarev three-movement choral concerto (Today all creation rejoices), shorter works by Shorin, Bortnyiansky and Hristov, as well as some classic folksongs: Evening Bells, Twelve Robbers, Black Hussars, and Pray, my friend. These were all magnificently sung, as would be expected from such a long-established group. The sonorities of the religious items were nicely handled, so that the homophonic nature of such pieces – which can make for dull listening after a while – was enlivened by changes in dynamic and speed, and full marks go to Evgeny Volkov for his communicative control of the choir. What was perhaps a little unusual was the speed at which these pieces were sung; certainly the classical-influenced choral concertos are usually taken at a reasonable pace, but the tempo of, for example, Balakirev’s The prophets proclaimed you, is often much slower than it was in this evening’s performance. The folksongs were also expertly executed, and their often quicker pace was even faster than usual, making numbers such as Near the river perfectly short and snappy; again the changes of tempo (such as in We planted flax) made for excitement and interest.
The ‘classic’ Russian singing programme was imaginatively complemented by more unusual items that allowed the choir the opportunity to explore more contrapuntal music. Russian film scores were represented by the music of Shostakovich (The people’s lament from Kozintsev’s King Lear) and Khachaturian (the Willow Song from Yutkevich’s Othello, featuring the deliciously creamy tones of the soprano Gilyana Dordzhieva), both in celebration of Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary, which was also marked by a performance of Kirill Volkov’s Russian setting of Sonnet 66 (Tired with all these, for restful death I cry) – its acerbic style reminiscent of Rubbra, or even Poulenc – that was probably the most taxing work of the concert, as it saw the choir at perhaps its most uncertain in terms of co-ordination. Other unusual items included a world-premiere performance of Prokofiev’s delightfully lush O life, you are but a moment for piano, baritone and choir, a scrumptiously jazzy arrangement of Lennon and McCartney’s Yesterday, and a couple of Elgar pieces (the partsong Serenade, sung in English, and an arrangement, in Russian, for baritone, piano and choir, of the violin piece Salut d’amour).
Although the choir sang excellently, the icing on the choral cake was provided by Yuri Laptev whose magnificent heroic baritone voice is of the old school: solid, powerful and full of authoritative twang. Laptev relished each appearance – whether it was singing a lead role, such as his perfect rendering of the Nuptial Song from Rubinstein’s Nero, as a soloist in many of the folksong arrangements, such as the delightfully oom-pa-pa-chorus-accompanied rendering of On the hills of Manchuria, or delighting the British members of the audience in Rule Britannia, sung as an encore piece – his voice effortlessly solid for each number.