A concert of songs by obscure Russian and Soviet composers, given as part of a conference in the University of Durham’s music department had the potential to be a somewhat dry and academic affair, but this was not the case in this evening’s spirited performance by the Ukrainian soprano Natalia Kompaniyets, and pianist Patrick Zuk. Although the composers may have been largely unknown beyond the conference guests at the concert, the programme contained settings of works by some of Russia’s greatest romantic and symbolist poets, so it was perhaps not surprising that at times, the music was upstaged by the words.

The most interesting of these composers was, without doubt, Nikolay Myaskovsky whose settings of the symbolists Balmont and Hippius captured the shimmering decadence of the verses and were suppressed by the Soviet authorities for both their words and for Myaskovksy’s adventurous harmonies. Zinaida Hippius’s poem Leeches is a rather sickly affair and an extreme example of the genre (I see leeches clinging also to my soul... leeches, black leeches of ravening sin - you get the idea). Myaskovsky’s piano accompaniment of repeated falling intervals created an atmosphere of gloom and stagnation and Natalia Kompaniyets relished the words, spitting out the word leeches with menacing effect. This song was followed by Incantation, also to words by Hippius, which was a mesmerising, chant like piece, ending with a rhythmic heartbeat that rose to a triumphant climax.

Piano and voice were cleverly set off against each other in Mikhail Gnesin’s setting of another symbolist poem, The feather-light little bird by Konstantin Balmont, the piano taking the part of the innocent little bird, fluttering and trilling around the poet’s death-bed, oblivious to the thoroughly morbid words.

Although there was plenty of Slavic doom, with songs of death and lost love, these were interspersed with some delightful lighter pieces. I am here, Inesilla, a setting of a Pushkin poem by Vassarion Shebalin took us straight to Spain, with a thumping, rhythmic piano part and flamenco-style riffs. Straw by Aleksandr Alyabyev was a light-hearted, almost child-like march, the words a jokey little poem in praise of straw (the idea is that there are poems about everything else; battles, the moon, flowers, beauty, so why not straw).

Natalia Kompaniyets, formerly principal soprano with the Kiev National Opera, and now teacher of Russian song at the Royal Northern College of Music, was clearly fully at home with this less-known repertoire and switched easily between the passionate and the playful, although her powerful operatic soprano was a bit overpowering in the music department’s small recital hall. At times her phrasing was choppy and she lost tone in her lower register but if her performance made up in spirit for what it lacked at times in polish.

Throughout the evening, Durham music lecturer Patrick Zuk was kept busy with what some tricky piano parts; all the composers featured this evening used the piano as much as the voice to colour the words, in the tradition of great Russian pianists. The seriously hard work was saved until the end, when the concert brought us back to more familiar territory with four songs by Rachmaninov. A-oo! (usually translated as The Quest) built up gradually to a big, characteristic Rachmaninov piano coda, full of rich heavy chords. The programme ended in a blaze of passion with Kakoi Schastye (What Happiness), with Natalya Kompaniyets and Patrick Zuk battling to see who could give it the most power (the piano won, this was Rachmaninov’s virtuosic, thundering piano writing at its best). After rousing applause and cheers, the performers returned to the platform and treated us to Rachmaninov’s beautiful, restful Son (The Dream), this beautiful finale brought the concert to a calming close.