The Duke Center for Slavic, Eurasian and East European Studies and Duke Performances presented a very pleasant (off-series) program on October 16 to a modest audience in Baldwin Auditorium. The concert featured two fine soloists – tenor Dmitry Vladimirovich Karpov and soprano Marina Viktorovna Tregubovich – and an extraordinary accompanist, Aleksandr Ivanovich Smorodkin.

Most of the music on the program was by Michail Glinka (1804-57), the first Russian composer to gain wide recognition outside his own country. His operas A Life for the Czar (1836) and Ruslan and Ludmilla (1842) marked the beginning of a characteristically Russian style of music, so Glinka is often regarded as the father of Russian music. He met Donizetti and Bellini during his early studies in Italy and was deeply influenced by their operas. He also studied piano with John Field, and in the 1830s he completed his formal study of music theory in Berlin. These influences are clear in the songs heard in Durham. They were bel canto in character but without brilliant technical display; they were dramatic or tender, yearning or delighting as needed, in response to the texts; and they featured exquisite piano accompaniments.

Karpov opened the concert with a beautiful rendition of Glinka’s “I recall a wonderful moment,” a beautifully melodic song with a wonderful accompaniment that made me wonder if Glinka had been at the feet of Franz Schubert. It seemed Karpov might have been singing this song all his life, so perfect was the phrasing, breath support, and presentation. Later in the program, Karpov sang “Doubt,” a dark and dramatic song, performed with intense feeling. Tregubovich’s rendition of “The Lark” was a highlight of the first half of the program. It was sung with impressive control across the range of her voice, and her pianissimos were breathy and sensuous. The accompaniment for this song by Glinka shimmered and included brief harp-like lark songs between each of the verses.

It was most unfortunate that no one went to the trouble of providing texts (or transliterations) and translations for the audience. The enjoyment of the concert would have been immeasurably enhanced had we been privy to the poetry and meaning of the texts. One song especially created in me a longing to know the words. I tried to look it up on a song site on the Web, but because the song titles in the program were printed in Cyrillic script, it was only a guess as to what the transliterated title was. The song in question was given in the program as “The Gulf of Finland.” Listening to Karpov’s haunting rendition and judging only by the emotional impact of the music, I tried to imagine if the singer was gazing wistfully at the sea and reflecting on the beauty of the evening, or looking across the water, longing for a departed love, or anticipating his own immanent departure from his homeland. It could have been any of these or something totally different.

The duets, including Glinka’s “Do not tempt me needlessly,” were polished and sung with subtle nuances and playful exchanges. The voices matched well. Karpov flatted briefly at one point but corrected instantly. I suppose that those in the audience well versed in Russian art song and opera heard things that were familiar, but it was all new to me. Two encores – a song (or aria) by Karpov and a duet – were sung without introduction or explanation.

The singing was beautiful, but Karpov’s fine tenor voice rarely got a chance to shine in the upper register until late in the second half of the concert, when he sang an aria from Eugene Onegin. Most of his songs were in the baritone tessitura, but even there the tonal richness and a certain charm in his voice were most pleasing. Tregubovich’s voice had a bit of a harsh edge to it in the beginning, but she warmed up as the program progressed. Her rendition of Iolanthe’s aria, from Tchaikovsky’s opera of the same name, was dramatic and moving, and her fading diminuendo at the end was breathtaking.

The star of the evening stayed in the background; Smorodkin’s superb accompaniment was always supportive of the singer, whether arpeggios, soft chords, or counter melody. The interludes were complementary to the singer’s leading and never intrusive or demanding attention from the singer’s role in presenting the song. I, for one, was disappointed that the “solo piano work by Rachmaninov” advertised in the pre-program announcements was not included in the printed program and was not performed.