Conductor
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Concert: Clarion Choir/Steven Fox at the Royal Academy of Music, London NW1

It’s a big thumbs-up for an expertly paced, mystically contemplative performance full of light and shade.

Rimsky-Korsakov looks away, seemingly unaware of the camera. Next to him is Stravinsky, staring directly at us. And there’s a third, less familiar composer in this intriguing domestic photo. Maximilian Steinberg: classmate, friend, rival of Stravinsky; the pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov who became his successor at the St Petersburg Conservatory (and his son-in-law); a teacher of Shostakovich. Posterity had largely ignored Steinberg’s music until 2014 when Cappella Romana gave Passion Week its first public performance, in America, more than 90 years after it was written.

And it’s a find, as the beautiful UK premiere by the Clarion Choir demonstrated. Indebted to Grechaninov’s Passion Week and Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil, this 1920-23 a cappella work for Holy Week is infused with ancient Russian orthodox chants. Indisputably sacred, it had to be hidden from the anti-religious Bolsheviks. Was it written as an act of defiance or as a memorial to a threatened heritage? Whatever the reason we should be thankful that Steinberg managed to get the score published in Paris.

There’s a mystical quality, a whiff of incense, to Passion Week and, as the music ebbed and flowed, I was lulled into a wonderful, contemplative state. That was down also to the quality of the performance; expertly paced by the conductor Steven Fox, the singing was fluid and full of light and shade. Fresh from the St Petersburg and Moscow premieres, the Clarion Choir gave us its best Church Slavonic. After the encore, amid copious applause, one of the singers gave a cheery thumbs-up to someone in the audience. Well, a big thumbs-up from me too.

Rebecca Franks, The Times
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