Moscow Sretensky Monastery Choir at Carnegie Hall

30 October 2012

Beloved Russian Sounds, A Cappella and Stirring


October 17, 2012

To anyone not in the know, the prospect might have seemed stern if not altogether forbidding: a full evening of a cappella singing by the Moscow Sretensky Monastery Choir. Clearly most of those in the large, and largely Russian-speaking, audience at Carnegie Hall on Monday evening knew better.

Alexey Tatarintsev, center, was a featured soloist with the Moscow Sretensky Monastery Choir at Carnegie Hall on Monday.

Only about a third of the program — not nearly enough for my taste — was devoted to music of the Russian Orthodox Church. The next third, straddling the intermission, offered Russian folk songs. And finally came a set of composed songs that have penetrated deep into the culture, to judge from the many listeners singing or clapping along, even when not encouraged to do so by the director, Nikon Zhila.

But unfortunately for non-initiates, the program offered little help: no texts or translations and scant information about the music.

At least one major work based in Russian Orthodoxy, though written for concert purposes, has almost become part of the standard choral repertory in the West: Rachmaninoff’s Vespers, or All-Night Vigil. And the choir gave a lovely, restrained account of one number from that service, “Rejoice, O Virgin”: all subtlety and understatement of a sort the casual listener might not associate with Rachmaninoff.

There were also several works by Alexander Gretchaninov — more adventurous harmonically and delivered powerfully, almost aggressively at times — along with Pavel Chesnokov’s drone-generated “God Is With Us.”

The secular repertory included the familiar “Song of the Volga Boatmen” and other tunes remembered from recordings of the Soviet Army Chorus and Band (and the film “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming”): “Down Piterskaya Street” and Lev Knipper’s “Rolling Fields.” The popular numbers, some in mildly soupy arrangements, went on a little too long for a listener still craving more sacred or folk material.

The performances were everywhere wonderful, though with surprisingly little reveling in the subterranean bass notes that all Russian choirs cultivate. “The Horse,” by Igor Matvienko, came closest.

Two soloists — Dmitry Belosselskiy, a strong, somewhat bluff bass; and Alexey Tatarintsev, a tenor with a touch of swagger — were featured repeatedly, and others occasionally stepped out of the choir. The two main ones brought the house down in their final numbers: Mr. Belosselskiy in Iliya Shatrov’s “On the Hills of Manchuria,” Mr. Tatarintsev in Matvei Blanter’s “Katyusha.” And the chorus did so on its own in Eduard Kolmanovsky’s “Life, I Love You.”