Mystère des Voix Bulgares

RNCM Wednesday 3rd November 2010

Resplendent in their traditional costumes in vivid red, green and orange colours, the twenty piece Womens choir of Bulgarian Radio and Television to give them their formal title and function took the stage to a virtual full house and rapturous applause from the outset. It is seldom that one sees, let alone hears, music of this calibre and setting in Manchester and the audience were extremely appreciative of the privilege of sharing an evening with them.

Their French title of Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares stems from their discovery from a western perspective by French ethnomusicologist Marcel Cellier during the 1970s and it was indeed via a French record label that they were first heard by a wider international audience. Part of their charm is that the voices themselves are difficult to categorise, but lie somewhere between Gregorian chants and improvisational music, though immediately accesible to all even if, like most people listening in the concert hall, you do not have any command of Bulgarian and are certainly more folk in inspiration than say classical. Rather it is both the vocal textures and the interplay between the singers who perform in various settings and pairings, thereby successfully communicating everday stories to the audience, that truly stands out and impresses above all else. The choir has been recruited from villages throughout Bulgaria and each of them individually possesses a highly distinctive repertoire. The blending of these is a delicate process, but in the extremely capable hands of conductor Doris Hristova, a fusing of styles has been achieved. The songs themselves are relatively short in length, ranging between three and four minutes on average, and the different singing styles seem to be symbolised by the slight variation in dress of choir members who roughly range in age between twenty somethings and seventy plus and each contribute something different to the songs. Sometimes there may be a lead singer who improvises at one stage and at other time groups of singers take centre stage. On a couple of occasions, a male singer takes the lead role, though immediately leaves thereafter and does not regularly participate in the ensemble sound. At the beginning of every song, Hristova plays a chord on the piano and then the choir are ready to enter.

Several of the songs have a plaintive sounding quality and judging by some of the translated titles such as ‘A dark cloud is coming’, ‘The mountain is burning’ and ‘Duda is ill’, reflect the negative as well as positive aspects of daily life we can all readily associate with. It would be totally inaccurate, however, to think that all the music is in any way morbid in nature. Far from it. Joyous sounds abound on songs with titles like ‘The wedding’, ‘Bulgarian reel dance’ and ‘Beautiful young girl’. The choir simply reflect in musical form all aspects of daily life. At one point during the second half of the performance, the choir begin singing randomly as disparate voices in order to create a cacophony of sound, but within a short space of time join up collectively to sing in unison. This is by no means an easy skill to acquire and one with the potential to alientate the audience, but the choir pull off the feat effortlessly.

Overall, this is quite a unique evening’s entertainment and the audience left the auditorium with the distinct sensation of having heard and witnessed something quite extraordinary and unique. That is perhaps the true gift of this highly talented choir and its leader. Little wonder that the likes of George Harrison and Frank Zappa have been entranced by their sound.

Tim Stenhouse