Russia’s early music scene isn’t big, but it’s enthusiastic. A handful of performers and musicologists have taken the principals of historically informed performance and applied them to early Russian repertoire. One of the most prominent names is Anatoly Grindenko, active as both a viola da gambist and choral director. His work with Russian Orthodox chant has been particularly significant. He has visited many of Russia’s ancient monasteries in search of manuscripts, which he has then interpreted and transcribed for performance with his own choir, Drevnerusskiy Rospev. This evening’s concert gave a survey of some of the results, liturgical chants, mainly from the 17th century, brought back to life with the aid of the latest scholarly research.  

Speculation always plays a role in such projects, but the amount of creative interpretation required here is unusually high. Grindenko explained at one point that some of the manuscripts he had found were individual voice parts, but that it was not clear whether they were to be performed together in polyphony or separately. Very little of what we heard this evening was particularly polyphonic, suggesting that Grindenko had erred on the side of caution in these cases.

Drevnerusskiy Rospev © Gavin Dixon
Drevnerusskiy Rospev
© Gavin Dixon

He was also conservative with ornamentation. The traditions of Byzantine and Russian Orthodox chant apparently diverge on this issue. Byzantine chant is simpler, but more decorated, while Russian Orthodox chant is more melodically complex, leaving less scope for ornamental additions.

The results were austere but fascinating. Most of the music was sung in unison by the 12 male voices, or occasionally the basses would separate to provide a sustained or slowly moving pedal below the faster tenor line. Grindenko was keen to show a stylistic progression over the course of the 17th century, and there was a clear shift through the chronology from hard-edged angular lines to more lyrical and rounded chants.

Some of the sources are anonymous, others are credited, but to obscure figures. Some of the music we heard was by the Tsars of the era, for whom training in the art of Orthodox chant composition was considered an essential part of their education. Ivan the Terrible was among the composers, although Grindenko was at pains to stress that his fearsome reputation was undeserved. Certainly, the chants by him we heard were elegant and skilfully aligned with the texts. His approach was very traditional for its time, we were told, a view borne out by the close stylistic links with these works and the earlier pieces we had heard.

A chant from a Polish codex was also included. The Polish chant of the time was higher and lighter in texture, something that Grindenko emphasised in the performance, retaining the evenness and the tonal focus, but significantly reducing the weight of the sound.

The performances were uniformly fine. Drevnerusskiy Rospev has long experience of performing this music. Their intonation is excellent, even through the music’s many counterintuitive modal twists, and the choir breathes and phrases as one.

This isn’t music that sells itself. Even by the standards of Orthodox Chant it is austere and can seem unrelenting. But under Grindenko’s guidance, the telling details emerge that separate the different trends in 17th century chant. And what might otherwise seem uniform and monolithic instead emerges as a diverse and continually developing tradition.