Over the years, America has enjoyed a love-hate relationship with Russia. They’ve been our pals, our enemies, and our pals, again. Now they are… well, who knows? But a constant, over time, has been the excellence of Russian music and art, and from time to time we’ve even had opportunities to hear and see some prime examples in the flesh, as it were. On Sunday, March 23, there were two presentations of Russian music in the Triangle, one of which involved real Russians. As Ed Sullivan suggested in the ’50s, when he introduced the Moiseyev Russian Folk Ballet for a then-unprecedented show that featured no other guests, the peoples of the world can get along, even if their respective governments cannot.

In Duke Chapel at 4:00 p.m., Duke’s Collegium Musicum presented a fairly short program of Russian liturgical music from the 17th and early 18th centuries. The composers of most of the works are unknown. The Collegium’s choir, which consists of seventeen singers, is led by Craig DeAlmeida, who also wrote the exceptionally fine program notes. Texts (yes, in Old Church Slavonic!) and translations were also provided, along with a pronunciation guide that had apparently been thoroughly studied by the mostly young vocalists.

Now I should reveal, in the interest of full disclosure, that the Collegium’s faculty coordinator is Alexander Silbiger, who is also Vice Chair of CVNC , but that said my own interest in Russian liturgical music goes back many years before CVNC …. Recordings led by the great Nicholas Afonksy were part of my family’s collection; after leading choirs for some of Chaliapin’s last recordings*, he wound up in New York, where he directed the Choir of the Holy Virgin Protection Cathedral in lower Manhattan. This choir made several records for Westminster, and when I visited this Russian Orthodox Cathedral on numerous occasions in the ’60s and beyond, I was always amused by the presence of framed gold pressings of these Lps, scattered among the icons on the walls of the lobby and sanctuary…. (There is a Russian Orthodox community in the Triangle. Readers who wish to attend one of their services may surf for more information online.)

The music sung at Duke came from several places and represented several polyphonic traditions. The Collegium choir is SATB; clearly, the music was originally sung by men and boys (and indeed churches that are true to tradition still separate men from women during services). There was wondrous variety in the pieces, with solos and solo groups deployed with smaller and larger choral accompaniments. Some of the numbers were stand-alone pieces, while others came from various larger collections (Divine Liturgy, Vespers, etc.). The program contained different settings of several texts that demonstrated changes in musical approach. The program ended with works by Nikolai Diletsky (c.1630-c.1680) and Vasily Titov (c.1650-1710). By this time, things had gotten quite complex. Diletsky’s “O Virgin Unwedded” is an eight-voice antiphonal work, and Titov’s immense “Cherubic Hymn” is a twelve-part score in which the choir alternates with solo trios.

The performances were mostly as wonderful as the music, although the singers were clearly tied to their folders – one suspects that Old Church Slavonic is not a second language for any of them. It would have helped if a few more mature bassos had been engaged, to reinforce the tone. Aside from these minor reservations, however, one can only praise the event and the participants, who – the notes revealed – performed “nearly half of the Russian Baroque music published in Western transliteration at [the] present time.”

*All of Chaliapin’s surviving recordings, including some cylinders made privately in 1897-1901, are being published in a series of CDs by Arbiter. We are getting our copies of these at Quail Ridge Books & Music, where our colleague Marvin J. Ward hangs his hat from time to time.

A second Russian music program was given on the evening of March 23 by Archiglas (http://www.archiglas.com/ [inactive 12/09]) in the sanctuary of Raleigh’s Holy Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church. The ensemble has previously visited Raleigh; like the Kiev choir and orchestra reviewed elsewhere in this issue, it is supported by a church group, and its tours likewise help fund religious work in the former Soviet Union. In Archiglas’ case, the sponsor (or the beneficiary – or both) seems to be the Lutheran Seminary in St. Petersburg.

Four singers are involved in the group’s current US tour – Natalia Lebed, soprano, Anastasia Zabolotskaya, mezzo-soprano, Dmitry Vorobjev, baritone and conductor, and Alexey Goloviznin, bass. A fifth member was denied a visa by our INS. This is of course not the first time “Homeland Security” has impeded artistic endeavors.

The program was announced from the platform, and alas our Russian is weaker than Vorobjev’s English. The all-classical first part of the program began with an 18th century liturgical piece by our friend Anonymous that was a logical follow-on to the Duke Collegium’s concert. The group’s website details tour repertory, but the program seemed to depart from that listing; among the works given were Lvov’s “Son of God,” Taneyev’s “Lord, Hear my Prayer,” Tchesnokov’s “Lord is With Us!,” and a glowing “Bless the Lord,” by Ippolitov-Ivanov, of “Caucasian Sketches” fame, along with a stunning Magnificat, a Gloria Patri, and a piece by Arkhangelsky.

All the singers gave solos during the course of the evening, and all were clearly excellent, operatically-trained artists. The mezzo was particularly impressive, and the soprano proved radiant, too, when she warmed up.

The second half was devoted to Russian folksongs (perhaps including folksongs from other components of the Federation). Formal titles were not routinely provided; instead, the gist of the songs was explained. These included several numbers familiar to US audiences, such as the Christmas song “Schedrik-schedrik,” known over here as “Carol of the Bells,” and an old favorite of the aforementioned Chaliapin, “Down the Petersky.” This group travels on a tight budget, staying with families from various churches, and clearly it does all it can to keep expenses down, but it really ought to provide at least a simple sheet listing the works being given.

The encore was “America the Beautiful,” beautifully sung (with, presumably, for these singers, the same sorts of challenges the Collegium choristers had faced earlier in the day, with their delivery of Old Church Slavonic!). Details of Archiglas’ tour are posted at their website, provided above.