Various: Works from 18th-century Russia

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COMPOSERS: Various
LABELS: Pierre Verany
ALBUM TITLE: Collection: Russian Baroque Music
WORKS: Works from 18th-century Russia
PERFORMER: Sarah Bilèn, Agnieszka Budzinska (soprano), Bernhard Schafferer (countertenor); Ensemble Syntagma/Alexandre Danilevski (archlute, guitar)
CATALOGUE NO: PV 700035
This extraordinary disc lifts the veil from a brief moment of time. Peter the Great’s enthusiasm for Western culture and technology led also to the introduction of Western musical notation to Russia in the early 18th century. It was initially associated, though, not with mannered French decoration, nor Italian bel canto, but simple ballad songs with a strong dance-like pulse. They are mostly for three voices, accompanied by a reverberant band of plucked instruments, flutes and violin – still characteristic of eastern-European folk music today. Several of the arrangements grow from instruments alone, through a single voice, to descanting in wistful thirds above the core melody, often with instrumental decoration. The texts – in Russian – are psalm transcriptions and love-poems both secular and, mirroring the same hopes and disappointments, from the Song of Solomon.

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For all the repetitive simplicity, subtleties hide below the surface. Unexpected three-bar phrases throw the first song off balance. Others retain the tonal ambivalence of folk music, oscillating between major and related minor. One reverts to primitive parallel fifths and octaves. One melody, which has haunted me for days, stops and pirouettes around three notes before completing its phrases. Yet it is just these unsophisticated qualities which create such winsome appeal. George Pratt