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Highly charged in Kiev

02 May 2014

Roderic Dunnett hears a British choir sing for patriots in Ukraine


HOLY WEEK and Easter were kept with fervour in Ukraine. The stand-off has stamped the whole country with a tension that you see as you skirt potholes on city streets. In Kiev on Palm Sunday, grateful Ukrainians flocked to soak up the liturgical music at the brand-new, still unfinished, and only recently dedicated Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Patriarchal Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ.

The event was special in three ways. One was the presence of Patriarch Svyatoslav; the second was the equipping of children and their elders alike with willow switches, used to denote palm branches; and the third was the choir: the Bulava Chorus, founded and conducted by Pavlo Hunka, an international opera singer, half Ukrainian, and steeped from childhood in Slavonic liturgical chant. This is the first Western ensemble to show solidarity by appearing in Ukraine since its current troubles began.

They performed the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom by one of the Ukraine's most important - here regrettably neglected - composers, Kyrylo Stetsenko (1882-1922), who himself took holy orders as a priest in the Orthodox Church, and served in a rural parish before dying of typhus that he contracted while tending the sick.

What stands out about this British-based chorus is the scrupulously idiomatic way in which Hunka inspires its members to sing. Many have a family background in what was once dubbed "Little Russia" (Mala Rossiya); hence I was overwhelmed by the articulacy of the Slavonic vowels and consonants, and the confident, stylised delivery (from an upper gallery), which gave extra immediacy to the striking drama of the proceedings below.

The beautifully phrased solos that emerged from the choral textures, the rise and fall of the alleluias in Stetsenko's relatively "safe", largely tonal but elegant turn-of-the-last-century treatment, were all part of a rich experience. Confidence and projection, plus that crucial quality of support to the voices - that was all there. The fuller-bodied sections lifted the spirits; reinforced by the schoolmasterish tones of a booming bass cantor, many of those present were patently moved.

An offshoot of Pavlo Hunka's activities, when he has time - as a bass-baritone soloist, he is sought after by Daniel Barenboim, Simon Rattle, and others - is promoting on record and in recital the cause of Ukrainian art-song, which equates with German Lieder, or in Russia to the songs (pisni) of Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky.In Ukraine, song has its own poignant history. It was banned. Tsars and early Soviets forbade it to be sung, unless in Russian or (the aristocratic and courtly language) French.

Especially impressive in this rendering of Stetsenko's Liturgyhad been the passionate, audibly beneficial participation, intoning unfamiliar Ukrainian, of eight students from the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. It was these uniformly gifted young singers who now performed a signal service - of performing "lost" Ukrainian art-song in its homeland.

The textual subjects covered, especially by the father of Ukrainian song, Mykola Lysenko, are wide-ranging: from poignant folk tales or love ditties ("The Sweetest Eyes") to heart-searching ("The Burdened Soul", "A Mother's Sorrow"), an almost fanatical love of homeland, plus wan pleas to a benign (it is hoped) God ("Testament"), or a mixed religious and ritualistic, joyous or gloomy sense of the passing of harvest, hours, and seasons.

The quality of the singing here was remarkable for aspiring vocalists at the outset of their careers, tussling with an elusive Slav tongue, mastering "shch", "ts", or the impossible interjected glottal (written "b" and "bi"). These songs had a cachet: each was a setting of poetry by Ukraine's 200-year-old national poet, whom Kievians adore almost idolatrously - the nation's Shakespeare and Goethe, and at heart its Pushkin and Chekhov, too - Taras Shevchenko (1814-61).

This is verse with fire in its belly and smoke from peasant hearths in its breast. What uplifted one most? Tenor Seumas Begg's happy-go-lucky singing of the joys of "The Cherry Orchard"; a melting lullaby from the spirited and beautiful-toned soprano Juliet Montgomery; and perhaps a lovely image-filled song about a ribbon from another soprano, Kim Raw.

Aidan Edwards's "The wind howls" evoked the very soul of Lysenko's writing. But the bass Eugene Dylan-Hooper had the plum, Shevchenko's "Testament": "I will leave fields and rivers, and ascend to the Throne where God sits alone. I'll clasp his feet and beseech him. . . But till then, bury me, then. . . O rise up and break your chains; then maybe one day, softly, you will speak of me again."

The Lord may yield Ukrainians salvation, but men must meanwhile stand up for themselves and defend a beleaguered homeland. It was all very contemporary.

Setting the seal on the whole day's events was the Bulava chorus's exquisite and - in the bodyof the building - resonant singing of Borysiuk's homesick "My Thoughts" and Lysenko's thunderous "The Dnieper Rages". National songs stimulated a moving patriotic response: the entire cavernous cathedral erupted; members of the audience sang along, and some of them wept.

Details of the Bulava Chorus and The Ukrainian Art Song Recording Project can be found at www.uasp.ca.

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