Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Crediton Congregational Church, Tuesday 17th May: A very special concert by the Hermitage Ensemble Russian Orthodox Male Voice Choir

Concert Co-ordinator:
Lady Mayoress of Crediton, Mrs Natalia Letch
Conductor and Director:
Bass-Baritone & Soloist, Andrey Kapralov
Although some of us might not have been aware of the fact here in Exeter, a very distinguished resident of Crediton has recently been welcomed as a citizen of the UK.
Natalia Putilova, an engineer (and singer) from Moscow was married to Crediton Mayor, The Honorable Frank Letch, in 2006 in Exeter.
As Lady Mayoress, Natalia has been working for various charities and, with Frank, has been very involved in Exeter's twinning with Yaroslavl in Russia. Natalia hopes to initiate a twinning association between Crediton and a Russian town in the near future.
One of her first projects as a newly welcomed British Citizen has been to arrange a superb cultural visit from St Petersburg in Russia.
On Tuesday evening this week Crediton Congregational Church was host to the incredible 'Hermitage Ensemble', a Russian Orthodox male voice choir from St Petersburg. (The name presumably a reference to the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg - setting of the wonderful Alexander Sokurov film 'Russian Ark'.)
Natalia welcomes the Hermitage Ensemble
First Tenor, soloist, Aleksander Arhipovskiy
First Tenor Denis Rozhdestvenskiy
Second Tenor Aleksey Chertov
The Honorable Natalia Letch, Mayoress of Crediton
Conductor, Bass Baritone, Andrey Kapralov
Basses Dmitry Vasilyev and Lenar Akhmetzyanov
The ensemble have six members at present. The three tenors and two basses are led and conducted by bass-baritone, and soloist, Andrey Kapralov. In addition to Andrey the ensemble has another soloist, first tenor Aleksander Arhipovskiy. Aleksander is a giant of a man - with a voice to match, so beautiful and penetrating it moves anyone who hears it (almost literally). His fellow tenors, Denis Rozhdestvendkiy (first tenor) and Aleksey Chertov (second tenor), harmonise perfectly, although sometimes eclipsed by the mighty voice of Aleksander himself.
Andrey conducts beautifully from the centre, keeping a friendly but firm hand on the proceedings at all times, while harmonising beautifully in that in-between range - sometimes up with tenors, but equally capable of sinking down to join the basses.
And the basses! It is well known that in Russia 'bass' implies a range that goes almost unbelievably low, but hearing is believing. Dmitry Vasilyev and Lenar Akhmetzyanov are able to plumb depths that send the notes through the floor and furnishings to vibrate through the listener's body. No recording could ever do justice to this phenomenal sound, a sound that is also sweet and liquid, strangely audible beneath all other sounds. Six voices that hit you like a shock wave - of joyful and delightful music!
The Russian Orthodox musical tradition grew from Greek, Byzantine and Oriental influences during the early years of Christian expansion. After many centuries of development into a characteristic Russian style, Italian influences were introduced with several Italian composers coming to Russia in the eighteenth century. Among them one Baldassare Galuppi - whose music has experienced quite a revival recently. Local pianist Joyce Clarke is currently performing his piano work at the Arsenale in Venice. (We enjoyed a preview in Exmouth on 4 May.) In the nineteenth century Italian trained Russian musicians developed the style further and the leader of the Mighty Handful, Mily Balakirev, who was Music Director of the Court Chapel in St Petersburg, worked with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov to prepare a huge collection of choral work in the Russian Orthodox tradition.
No instruments were ever included in these works, all effects being entirely produced by the human voice, as dictated by the church - with some justification!
Tuesday's concert was introduced by the ensemble's promoter and compère Natalia Aksuticheva - a very charming woman, but not willing to be photographed I'm afraid! In her captivating Russian accent she introduced each piece of music, and each singer as their turn came to shine, much to the confusion of the audience who couldn't follow the Russian all that easily. But the music spoke for itself. The first half was all liturgical music from the Russian Church, grand, respectful, - and sung with enormous power.
 The first song, Dmitry Bortnjansky's 'We Praise you, O lord!' from the early nineteenth century was controlled by Andrey who got his pitch from a tuning fork held to his ear before singing a gentle arpeggio to the other singers. Then we were immediately overwhelmed by rich deep harmonies between six incredibly powerful singers, held together by the low baritone of Andrey himself. Rising above it all was the superhuman tenor voice of the big man to Andrey's left, the extraordinary Aleksander Arhipovskiy. After an amazing five minutes of sound, which you never got used to, the tone changed to soft sacred music. Aleksander's tenor still cut through, but relatively softly, and beneath it all were the bass voices of Dmitry and Lenor. Slowly that low soft sound gained our attention as we realised that calmly, and apparently without effort, both basses were descending to impossible depths. The final Amens were drawn out beautifully with intricate harmony, and carefully pronounced in the Russian way, 'Ah - meen!'. Just what every conductor loves to hear! And so did we.
The rest of the first half:
Sergei Rachmaninov's 'Rejoice O Virgin': Dmitri Vasilyev's extraordinary bass sound cuts through the roar of the tenors.
Pavel Tchesnokov's 'The Angel Exclaimed': very soft harmony with a very very loud tenor solo by Aleksander Arhipovskiy - and a rousing chorus.
Guiseppe Sarti's 'Rejoice, You People' ('Raduitesia Lyudie'): beautiful tenor and bass humming in the arpeggios. Words split between the basses and tenors - e.g. Spass-Nura (but I've not idea what that means!)
Fiodor Makarov's 'It is Truly Meet' (Dostojno est): A wonderful pronunciation of 'Israelim' with rising inflection - exotic yet familiar.
Alexander Kosolapov's 'Dear Lord, strengthen the Holy Orthodox Church' (Utverdi Boze): An incredibly powerful baritone solo by Andrey Kapralov, with celestial harmony from the other voices. Andrey is clearly the boss!
Pyotr Tchaikovsky's 'The Lord's Prayer': an intriguing repeated theme ending on a sustained bass note.
Pavel Tchesnokov's 'Save the Wise Brigand' (Pazboinika Blagorozymnogo): Another solo for tenor Aleksander Arhipovskiy, in incredibly piercing tenor and very, very sad with impossibly deep bass accompaniment and a chilling final harmony, repeated, to finish.
Apostol Nikolaev-Strumsky's 'Dear Lord, Strong and Immortal, Forgive Us': Another solo for conductor and bass-baritone Andrey Kapralov. A bass lament over a bass hum, which Andrey could raise or lower by subtle hand movements. Long and tender harmony between the tenor and bass, leading to a pure bass solo for Dmitry Vasilyev and Lenar Akhmetzyanov.
Giulio Caccini's 'Ave Maria': Aleksander sings another solo softly, but with occasional forays into his penetrating tenor voice. Just two words repeated, with beautiful harmonising between the six singers.
During the interval wine and food were served while the performers mixed with the audience to chat and make themselves known, despite their very limited knowledge of English and (in most cases) our total ignorance of Russian. Our two hosts, Natalia Aksuticheva and Natalie Letch, were only too willing to act as interpreters. As the time approached for the second half the men disappeared backstage, only to reappear in traditional Russian tunics. Now it was time for some traditional Russian folk music:
Boris Sveschnikov's 'In the dark woods' (V Temnom Lese): A glorious 'pom pom pom' from the tenors, echoed even more gloriously by the basses, with a light and lively melody.
Sveschnikov's 'In the Village': according to Natalia, a song to impress the village beauties! Virtuoso singing for everyone, fast and very loud! Suddenly the music slows - don't get caught out and look a fool in front of the girls! A big, big finish, but then a sudden slow to another very slow, and very low, finish. Men's work!
'Horse': a traditional folk song about our country - Russia! From a soft opening the delicately harmonising voices rise in crescendo to incredible volume, only to sink away again. The audience start to be seriously affected. Ecstatic wolf whistles greet the closing notes. Steady girls!
'Soldiers, Brave Boys' from the Red Army repertoire: Andrey sings volubly about the 'Soldatje Ovski' before ending softly for a soft chorus from the other men. After a wink and a joke with the tenors he repeats the performance. By the end they've achieved the desired effect. Squeals of excitement from a certain quarter!
A little Irish flavour? Thomas Moore's 'Those Evening Bells' (Vecherny Zvon): After a quick check with the tuning fork Andrey sings Aleksander into a slow solo with the other men providing a slow accompaniment of 'bom - bom', both utterly superb!
'Twelve Robbers' (Dvenadzat Tazboinikov): Andrey sings solo over the the soft crooning of the chorus, with immense passion. He holds out his hands and appeals to the audience with a story which we almost think we can understand. His final words, descending into sobs, are greeted by an enormous cheer from the audience. We are totally won over!
 Suddenly something familiar, 'Kalinka': "My Juniper berry, my raspberry" faster and faster until the tenor soloist breaks in - Aleksander Arhiposkiy! "Akh, pod sosoye, pod zelenoyu, Spat 'poloshite vy menya! Ay- Lyuli, lyuli, ay-lyuli, Spat 'polozhite vy menya." ("Ah, under the pine, the green one, lay me down to sleep, a lully lully, a lully lully, lay me down to sleep.") So simple and yet unbearably, exquisitely beautiful. The audience can barely contain themselves. Overcome by the singing of these mighty Russian men they stamp their feet and clap their hands.  More.  More!  Encore!
Natalia says nothing. Gently and simply the men begin one last song - in English! The most covered English song of all time - Paul McCartney's 'Yesterday'! Even though we knew the singers did not know enough English to understand the song, their diction was almost perfect, a very spooky effect like hearing comprehensible words in a crash of a thunderstorm.
There was almost nothing to say after a finish like that.
Except - Thank you so very much to Natalia Aksuticheva and the 'Hermitage' Russian Male Voice Choir for extending their tour to this remote corner of Devon. And special thanks to Natalia Letch for coming to Devon herself and bringing the wonders of Russian culture to us. You have truly enriched our lives!

For more details see the Official Programme.

That 'Hermitage Ensemble' itinerary of UK appearances in full:

Sun   15 May:  Taunton
Tue   17 May:  Crediton
Wed 18 May:  St Andrew's Church, Banwell, West Sussex
Thu   19 May:  St Michaels and All Angels,
                        Pirbright, Near Woking, Surrey
Fri     20 May:  Chelmsford Cathedral Essex
                         St Andrew's, Collingbourne Ducis, Wiltshire
Sat    21 May:  Shaftesbury, Dorset
Sun   22 May:  Kingsbury, London
Mon  23 May:  St John the Evangelist, Newtimber,
                         near Brighton, West Sussex
Tue   24 May:  East Worthing, West Sussex
Wed 25 May:  St Barnabas, Hove, West Sussex
Thu   26 May:  Ashwell Music Festival, north Herfordshire
Fri     27 May:  St Laurence, Brundall, Norfolk
Sat    28 May:  St John the Evangelist, Tatworth, Somerset
Sun   29 May:  Goring-by-Sea, Worthing, West Sussex

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