Radiant Light: Sacred Music from Eastern Europe and Russia

Ikon II
May 14, 2014
Time : 7pm
Venue : Temple Church
Address : Temple, London EC4Y 7BB

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Stephen Layton and the Holst Singers present a programme of sacred music from the Orthodox and Catholic Churches of Eastern Europe and Russia, including selections from their critically acclaimed Ikon, Ikon II and Gretchaninov Vespers recordings. Composers include Rachmaninov, Gretchaninov, Golovanov, Górecki, Rimsky-Korsakov, Łukaszewski, and Chesnokov.


Golovanov – Otche nash
Chesnokov – Spasenie sodelal
Gretchaninov – Vsenoshchnoye Bdeniye – Movement 7: Ot yunosti moyeya & Movement 3: Svete tihiy
Gretchaninov – Liturgy No. 2
Kalinnikov – Svete tihiy
Kalinnikov – Bogoroditse Devo
Rimsky-Korsakov – Otche nash
Gretchaninov – Liturgy No. 2
Rachmaninov – Bogoroditse Devo
Gretchaninov – Strastnaya Sed’mitsa
Lukaszewski – Nunc dimittis
Gorecki – Totus tuus


Holst Singers
Stephen Layton conductor


Russian Art and Culture – Alex Chiriac

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’sAll-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’sNunc 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!

Review by Alexandra Chiriac


Bachtrack – Emily Owen

By Emily Owen, 22 May 2014

The Temple Music series held in the beautiful Temple Church features some star studded early evening recitals and intriguing repertoire, and tonight’s concert was no exception. The Holst Singers are an experienced group, performing a wide variety of concerts around London and the world. Tonight we were treated to a Russian choral extravaganza featuring some of the lesser known Russian composers alongside some old favourites by Rachmaninov and Gretchaninov.

The programme revolved around several exquisite settings of the words of The Lords Prayer and the opening number was a little known version by Nikolai Golovanov, which made the most of the extraordinary resonance of the choir and the building. The flow and clarity of text was wonderful and the writing featured everything that I love about Russian choral writing – profoundly low bass lines, sorting sopranos and fantastic range of expression and dynamics. The more dance-like Gretchaninov hymns were a nice contrast to the dark and rich sound of the Chesnokov and again the crisp consonants of the Holst Singers brought the overlapping vocal entries to life in the “Cherubic Hymn”, which culminated in a glorious “Alleluia”.

The two Kalinnikov works which followed included a setting of the “Bogoroditse Devo”, which was a refreshing discovery for me – a trudging bass line really showed off the clarity of the lower registers and was always audible, despite being overlaid by some dense textures. The mystical setting of the “Otche Nash”, the second of this evening’s programme, was filled with indulgent harmonies and lead cleverly attacca into the famous Rachmaninov “Bogoroditse Devo” from hisVespers. I thought this was masterfully done – the unexpectedness of its appearance almost seamlessly from the previous piece leant an extra magical quality to this well known one. The ebb and flow of the words, sung with a hushed sense of awe was simply beautiful: a real highlight of the evening, despite being the most famous piece in the programme.

After another group of Gretchaninov featuring a fantastic mezzo soloist in the setting of “The Creed”, we ended the evening with Lukazewski’s “Nunc Dimittis” featuring two more soloists who were unfortunately less audible than the previous mezzo. However the choir achieved another mystical atmosphere and the key changes from major to minor were beautifully handled. The final piece in the programme was Henryk Gorecki’s Totus Tuus, an immense and dramatic work which builds tension and power through seemingly endless and increasingly passionate repeats of the text. The repetitive nature of the work was approached in a beautifully colourful way and the range of dynamics and vocal colour was impressive.