Russians wrote great choral music, but we don’t hear much of it because the average choir is unlikely to tackle a language whose script and sound are so utterly foreign.
The Houston Chamber Choir, a professional ensemble, took on Rachmaninoff’s Vigil earlier this year but, usually, Houstonians rely on occasional visits by groups such as the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir to hear the repertoire.
The ensemble, led by noted English choir musician Paul Hillier, returned to Da Camera Tuesday for the program Russian Spirituality: Chant, Baroque and Beyond. Linked to the exhibit of works by Russian Kazimir Malevich at the Menil Collection, the performance at the Wortham Theater Center was enhanced by a projection of Malevich’s painting Black Cross.
The choir sang a collection of sacred works by a group of composers that, surprisingly at first glance, included two 18th-century Italians. Estonian Arvo Pärt and Russian Alfred Schnittke are the names best known in concert music today. Galina Grigorjeva (b. 1962) is Ukarine-born.
Earlier figures were Vasily Titov (1650-1715) and Dimtry Bortniansky (1751-1821), the first native-born musician to head the Imperial Court Chapel and a dominant figure in 19th-century Russian choral music. Baldassarre Galuppi was his teacher, both in St. Petersburg and Italy. Giuseppe Sarti was another of the Italians imported by the Russian court to raise standards and perform their works (especially operas). Both wrote sacred pieces with Russian texts.
While the selections had elements of challenging concert music, the dominant mood was reflective and spiritual.
Texts came primarily from the Orthodox liturgy or Christian scriptures. The third of Schnittke’s Three Sacred Songs was a setting of The Lord’s Prayer.
The musical style was predominantly chordal and modal, though in the 20th-century works it was elaborated by complex harmonies and subtle, mild dissonances, some almost like clusters of notes. Chant periodically emerged to plant the music deeply in the religious tradition.
The 17th- and 18th-century works hinted at Western traditions. Titov’s setting of the Gloria may have reminded listeners of great Italian choral music. The 18th-century pieces hinted at the great choral works of Handel and Haydn, but always within the context of the more solemn, even morose temperament of Russian style.
Throughout the evening, including the single encore, a setting of Psalm 1 by Estonian Cyrillus Kreek, the choir’s 28 members sang beautifully for Hillier. They managed the difficult task of keeping an excellent blend as an ensemble while displaying a distinct character for each vocal part.
Fueled by the pure tone of the sopranos, the sound was glorious in simpler music. The “Alleluias” ending Grigorjeva’s On Leaving were one of those thrilling choral moments when sound, text and the intensity of performance magically merge, with profound impact.