Soloing In On Russian Choral Music

August 8, 2014

The Bay Area was served a generous helping of Russian vocal music last week during the West Coast’s first Russian Choral Festival. This week-long musical festivity ended on Sunday with a concert of singers from five Bay Area choirs and choruses; alumni of the Yale University Russian Chorus; guest singers from the Rachmaninoff Festival Choir of America; a 100-voice Festival Choir, plus soloists from the Metropolitan Opera and Bolshoi Theater.

Before these united vocal forces gave a panoramic overview of “1000 years of Russian Choral and Vocal Music,” there was a smaller, more intimate celebration of the genre during a recital on Friday at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Berkeley.

The concert consisted of works from, according to the title of the event, “The Golden Age of Russian Vocal Music,” performed by Pittsburg-based countertenor Andrey Nemzer (winner of the 2012 Metropolitan Opera competition) and bass Mikhail Svetlov from the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, together with sopranos Elena Gurevich and Olga France, and mezzo Olga Bykhovsky as guest soloists.

It is not entirely clear what (or who) exactly defines what the Golden Age of Russian Vocal Music is, but judging from the concert it starts with the music of Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857) and ends with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908), although there was also a scene on the program from Prokofiev’s opera Betrothal in a Monastery (or The Duenna), Op. 86 from 1940.

The second half of the 19th century was significant as a period in which Russia started to develop its own native form of classical music. Until then, Russia had not cultivated much of an instrumental music tradition, unlike the rest of Europe, mostly due to restrictions from the Russian Orthodox Church on the use of musical instruments during the liturgy — and their discouragement in any other environment. For a long time, art music in Russia was predominantly religious and vocal.

This changed with the increasing Westernization of Russia during the 17th and 18th century. This created a large influx of Italian and German musicians and composers to the Imperial court in St. Petersburg, each with their own musical traditions.

Mikhail Glinka is ultimately credited as the composer who gave Russian classical music a new direction with his first opera A Life for the Tsar (1836), in which he used melodies, themes and elements from traditional Russian music and folklore.

Even Tchaikovsky gave Glinka his due as the founder of Russian music when he wrote in his diary about one of his orchestral compositions (Kamarinskaya, 1848), that the whole Russian symphonic school was contained in this work "just as the whole oak is in the acorn".

Both of Glinka’s operas were represented at Friday’s concert at St. Mark’s. Separately, Nemzer and Svetlov sang solo arias from Ruslan and Lyudmila (1837-42), which clearly showed how much the composer at that time was still under the influence of what he heard when he spent three years in Italy, in the early 1830s.

That was a time when Gioacchino Rossini (1792 -1868), in spite of his functional retirement in 1829, was still hailed as the most popular opera composer in the world, so it is no wonder that both excerpts from Ruslan and Lyudmila (“Ratmir’s Aria” by Andrey Nemzer and “Farlaf’s Rondo” by Mikhail Svetlov) sometimes sounded more Rossinian than Russian.

Andrey Nemzer is not the type of countertenor that you often come across in the early music-rich Bay Area. His sound is remarkably light and clear, with a kind of steely vibrato. The volume that he is able to produce, especially in his falsetto register, is downright startling — which doesn’t always make it beautiful.

The broad, lyrical themes of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Six Romances allowed Nemzer to explore many different shades of emotions, from the delicate way of addressing a child to the despair of a soon-to-be-jilted lover. Two of Nemzer’s finest moments were his performance of Vanya’s Recitative and Aria from Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar, and a nice duet from Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades together with the light and elegant guest soprano Elena Gurevich, who was also a very graceful Snow Maiden in a solo aria from Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera of the same name.

Compared to Nemzer, bass Mikhail Svetlov’s robust sound was less of a surprise, but it was equally, if not more impressive. His program was a tribute to the famous Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin (1873-1938) and gave a nice overview of the many different personae Svetlov could bring to life with his fantastic vocal technique and fine acting skills. The amount of melancholy, sadness and longing that he managed to pack into the Cavatina from Rachmaninov’s opera Aleko was astonishing.

With her colorful playing and her versatile musicianship, pianist Donna Stoering was the ideal accompanist and a resourceful support for all singers involved.

Native Dutchman Niels Swinkels is a freelance journalist, musicologist, and sound engineer. Before moving to San Francisco, he was the arts editor and senior classical music/opera critic for Brabants Dagblad, a regional daily newspaper in the Netherlands. As a freelance writer and sound engineer, he currently works for San Francisco Opera, KALW Local Public Radio, Elevation Online, Earprint Productions, and others.