Aleko – Women’s Dance; Men’s Dance
Three Russian Songs, Op.41
The Bells – Choral Symphony, Op.35
Svetla Vassileva (soprano), Misha Didyk (tenor) & Alexei Tanovitski (bass)
Chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre
Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers
Reviewed: 31 July, 2011
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
On paper this Prom was enticing: the rarely performed Vesna (Spring), the Russian Songs, and a powerful choral symphony, all by Rachmaninov, one of the great tunesmith composers of music able to conjure landscapes whilst delivering emotional heft. Add to this a Russian line-up of voices, and a conductor who often has a knack with theatrical music. In the end, the performances were universally underpowered, the Royal Albert Hall’s vast space muting the assembled forces.
Rachmaninov’s cantata Spring was something of an awakening for Rachmaninov, its composition following the disastrous premiere of his First Symphony five years before, and coming just after that of the Second Piano Concerto. In a sultry RAH, Rimsky-Korsakov’s criticism of the piece, which he thought “good”, was apt: “there is no sign of ‘spring’ in the orchestra!”. Gianandrea Noseda seduced with the piece’s slow-burn opening, but elsewhere the orchestral textures were thin, the weight of sound lost. Although Alexei Tanovitski sang powerfully and with commitment, mirroring the exciting and pulsating passages, a sense of the music’s journey was absent, the pastoral close counted for little.
The dances from the 19-year-old Rachmaninov’s opera Aleko injected some vigour: the Women’s Dance a humorous, Cossack-lite affair, the Men’s being more substantial and featured some gorgeous cello contributions. Rachmaninov in despondent mood colours Three Russian Songs, though the subject-matter of the first – a duck crossing a brook – might suggest otherwise. However, there is always danger lurking, and this menace was what was ably invoked. The second song (‘Oh, Vanka, what a hothead you are!’) featured a superb bassoon solo at its close, and the female voices produced child-like textures to the sung words, matching their folk-song character. The third song’s subject matter of a wife in terror of her abusive husband eschewed anger for sadness and resignation, Rachmaninov’s mature and accomplished style coming to the fore.
Vocalise (the fourteenth song from the Opus 34 set), in Rachmaninov’s own arrangement is very familiar, and took some time to settle here. Svetla Vassileva’s declamatory delivery did not suit the music’s beauty, and she suffered a nervous wobble throughout.
The Bells (a masterpiece with words from the poem by Edgar Allan Poe freely translated into Russian by Konstantin Balmont) journeys from birth to death, and began here in sprightly fashion, the sleigh-bells whisking us on this fantastical journey. The second ‘wedding’ movement, which warns against such a course, seemingly, weaved an ominous path through the strings, though it was from here that the journey then failed, the performance becoming one-dimensional. There was no terror or mania in the alarm bells of the third movement, Noseda singularly failing to find its menace. The finale (‘Mournful Iron Bells’) was over far too quickly, its sombre tread counting for nothing, though an impressive contribution from Gillian Callow on cor anglais offered some comfort. Throughout, the Chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre was underpowered (63 singers being insufficient), the ad lib organ was sorely missed, and the BBC Philharmonic was lacking in fervour.