With hushed chanting the male voices of the Sretensky Monastery Choir drew the audience in, forcing them to settle in and listen closely, before the singers bloomed into a powerful crescendo. The choir of Moscow’s Sretensky Monastery is known for its sound, and the visceral fortissimos delivered in Adelaide’s Town Hall, as part of the Adelaide Festival, didn’t disappoint.

Sretensky Monastery ChoirThe Sretensky Monastery Choir

The first half of the program reflected its ecclesiastical roots, drawing on the Russian Orthodox hymns and chants of the choir’s 600-year history. The radiance of the “Hallelujah”s of the opening chant, Now All the Heavenly Powers (harmonised by Grigory Lvovsky) set the tone, the a cappella choir achieving a sound not unlike that of a church organ, but with a slightly raw, earthy quality underpinned by the deep growl of the basses. While entries and chord changes weren’t always pristine, the choir made up for any blemishes in ensemble work with the incredible energy they brought to the music. With the muscular strength of the choir so often on show, softer moments – like Rachmaninov’s The Hail Mary Prayer (in an arrangement by Dmitry Lazarev) – brought sonic relief (though few numbers were entirely devoid of the choir’s signature crescendos).

While sacred music set the scene, it was in the Russian folk music of the second half that the choir really caught fire. From the deep drone of Aleksander Sveshnikov’s arrangement of Ah, My Steppe Wife to the boisterous, ringing Ukrainian folk song (arranged by Aleksander Amerkhanov) On the Meadow, Meadow Green, this was music that had the audience clapping along to the energetic songs  – though apparently there were insufficient Russian speakers in the audience for conductor Nikon Zhila’s exhortations to join in the singing to be taken up. Perhaps the most affecting music of the second half, however, was the mournful Cossack song, Lovely, Brothers, Lovely, with its commanding baritone soloist and dark, hauntingly beautiful lament to falling warriors.

The choir’s six soloists were stunning, from the penetrating tenors (Ivan Leonov, Ivan Skrylnikov and Alexey Zakatov) down through the rich, potent baritones (Mikhail Turkin and Mikhail Miller) to the phenomenal, all-encompassing bass of Vadim Zaripov. Zaripov was cannily held back for the penultimate programmed number, On the Hills of Manchuria, a devastating ode to fallen soldiers, which had the audience spellbound. In fact, the crowd’s enthusiasm was such that even after the final number, Aleksandra Pakhmutova’s ethereal Enchanted Distance, celebrating the Russian homeland, the audience kept the choir on stage for no fewer than four encores.

The Sretensky Monastery Choir has one performance at the Adelaide Town Hall today, March 4 at 8PM


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