Dmitri Hvorostovsky and the Saint Petersburg Chamber Choir

at Orchestra Hall, November 17

By Sarah Bryan Miller

The crumbling of the iron curtain into rust seemed like the conclusion of a fairy tale. Of course in real life the story doesn’t end. Adjustments have to be made, and they’re not always easy. The arts were particularly hard hit in the former Soviet Union, because they’d been lavishly subsidized to provide proof of the superiority of the Soviet system. Talented artists had enjoyed perks unavailable to most: nice apartments, better stores, cars, dachas, even foreign travel if they were deemed trustworthy. They hadn’t needed to worry about pleasing anyone but the commissars, and if causing those worthies severe displeasure was often fatal, that’s conveniently forgotten now.

Last summer the very talented conductor Valery Gergiev, of Saint Petersburg’s Kirov Opera, brought his orchestra, chorus, and soloists to the Lincoln Center Festival in New York. After the final concert Philips Classics held a reception for the members of the Music Critics Association, whose annual meeting was built around the festival, and Gergiev was produced to answer questions. He stunned many when he said, “Things weren’t so bad in the Soviet Union. There were many things which were very, very good.”

For him, perhaps. But it’s hard to hear his words without thinking of the horrors of Magadan. Magadan, in eastern Russia, was the place where Stalin and his successors sent artists, intellectuals, and musicians, among them many Jews–when their crimes against the state didn’t warrant a simple bullet through the head–to die building a subarctic city without winter coats. Until recently Magadan had more classical musicians per capita than anywhere else in the world (Israel has now taken the lead), and whenever they construct a new building there they find bones casually tossed into huge anonymous graves just below the surface of the earth.

But even Gergiev, who might well have been reacting in part to the indignity of being required to deal with 150 jackals of the press at once–something he didn’t have to worry about in the old days–admitted that overall things are better now, apparently worth the trade-offs. His company is far better known around the world than it was before. He’s formed artistic alliances in the West, including opera coproductions and a recording deal with Philips. He can perform more music of his own choosing.

For music lovers in the West there have been no trade-offs, only pluses. Idiomatically performed Russian music, including works barely known here in the past, is suddenly widely available, sometimes even in rival versions. There are now Russian operas, symphonies, art songs, and liturgical music in fine performances to be found on EMI, Harmonia Mundi, BMG, and other labels. In the last year in Chicago we’ve heard successive collections of Balts, Poles, and Russians all singing beautifully and trailing clouds of applause and cigarette smoke behind them.

Perhaps the most significant flowering has been in Russian church music. Hardly encouraged and seldom performed in the Soviet years, when they were rightly seen as an expression of Russian nationalism and anticommunism, Russian liturgical works are once again coming into their own. They’re beautiful but they can also be used as sonic wallpaper by New Age types.

In the Russian Orthodox Church, instruments are not allowed, so all the music is entirely vocal–which at least means that it’s not troubled by the current shortage of organists. Unsurprisingly, this music is often reminiscent of that performed in traditional Jewish synagogues, which don’t allow instruments either.

The first half of the Saint Petersburg Chamber Choir’s Sunday afternoon concert at Orchestra Hall was devoted to the wonderful compositions of Sergei Rachmaninoff, which are vocally resplendent and rich with traditional Slavic harmonies. The 40-member choir, under the direction of Nikolai Korniev, sang three excerpts from the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom and eight from his Vespers, op. 37. (The choir has also recorded some of his works, including the Liturgy, trendily marketed by Philips as Meditations at Midnight.)

The choir had a few moments of uncertain pitch at the start of the concert, but quickly resolved them, growing stronger and more confident as it progressed through the program. A sweetly sung solo by an uncredited young tenor made the setting of the “Song of Simeon” (“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace”) particularly memorable. The women’s voices had more of an edge than we’re accustomed to hear in Western music, but the basses had the proper subbasement Russian sonority and provided a rich foundation for the rest of the choir.

In the second half of the program, which included sacred music by turn-of-the-century Russian composers, they were joined by Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, whose new recording with the choir (Credo) was recently released by Philips. Many of these works–with a soloist singing over a humming chorus or resting while his words are repeated for emphasis by the choir–are particularly reminiscent of the Jewish liturgy (at least one of these psalm settings has been translated into Hebrew and adopted for use in synagogues). Hvorostovsky sang this music with as much passion and emotion as he might put into an opera aria.

Hvorostovsky, now based in London, has emerged as part of the new generation of opera stars. Justly celebrated for the great beauty of his rich baritone, his musicality, and his stage presence, he’s one of the few Russian singers who really sounds at home in the Western repertory. And he’s taking advantage of his popularity here to bring this sacred music to a wider audience. He did a good job of it on Sunday afternoon.

He and the choir sounded best in the last three selections on the program, a trio of settings by Pavel Grigoryevich Chesnokov, and in the two encores–all of them performed in a heartfelt and moving fashion. Unfortunately, they didn’t sound as good as they might have in another setting; the acoustics at Orchestra Hall are simply too dry for this lush music, which needs ecclesiastical space to roll around in. Conductor Korniev has an idiosyncratic style, sometimes seeming to flail about aimlessly, but his choir was able to follow him without evident difficulty.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Orchestra photo.