sat 15/06/2024

London Bulgarian Choir, Kings Place review - dark Slavic tales in waves of sound | reviews, news & interviews

London Bulgarian Choir, Kings Place review - dark Slavic tales in waves of sound

London Bulgarian Choir, Kings Place review - dark Slavic tales in waves of sound

Revival of ancient Bulgarian songs in an inspiring return to live music

Earthy but unearthly soundsSimon Broughton

So, blinking, after too much isolation, into a spring evening for a first live indoor gig for over a year was always going to be exciting, if just for novelty value. But for a gentle breaking-in to live music, the London Bulgarian Choir was an inspiring choice.

Having 26 singers on stage is an achievement at the best of times. In the excellent acoustics of Kings Place the choir somehow managed to oscillate between the earthy and the unearthly in waves of sound.

A wider interest in Bulgarian choirs was prompted by the success of the album series Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares put out in the 1980s by 4AD records and admired by everyone from Bowie and Zappa to Kate Bush. The recordings were mostly the work of Swiss ethnomusicologist Marcel Cellier in the 1970s and earlier, and the leading choir recorded was that of Philip Koutev. The music is a fascinating and original hybrid of a Soviet style choir using ancient folk music with elements going back probably millennia.

The jovial and commanding leader of the London Bulgarian Choir, Dessislava Stefanova, was the concert master of Koutev’s choir and she decided, given the interest in Bulgarian singing when she moved to London, to set up her own choir. At least one of their songs were recognisable from Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares' “Kalimantu Denku” (“Evening Gathering”). What is different is that the London Bulgarian Choir has some men as part of the choir, whereas the original Bulgarian ensembles are all female. The choir also features different nationalities and some of their arrangements have a jazzier flavour.

But the core was the same wonderfully distinctive sound, with songs of forbidden love, or dark Slavic tales of someone’s wife being buried into the foundations of a house, or being kidnapped by a dragon. There were hopeless songs of lovers separated by war, while others, despite being bracingly bleak, managed to be somehow fundamentally joyful. 

Only a third of tickets were sold to keep social distancing; they were snapped up in hours. The event was part of the annual Songlines Encounters Festival, which has established itself as an adventurous global music celebration, often showcasing and breaking musical talent from round the world. Playing it safe, the festival decided to split the event, between this month for artists based in the UK and a second part in August for international artists flying in from all corners of the planet when, with luck, travel will be more normal.

The choir are almost but not quite yet at the wattage of Koutev's but they are getting there, and the waves of passionate and expert singing were touching and moving for both audience and performers starved of live music, something no recording can replicate.

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