How illuminating to see a different, seldom-programmed, side to Rachmaninov in this concert of vocal and choral (or, in the case of one item, vocal-inspired) works although we were never quite a whole world away from the familiar aspects of the composer, with his unrivalled gift to spin and subtly vary melodies always present.
Chief Conductor Gianandrea Noseda is stepping down from his post with the BBC Philharmonic after the end of this season, and leaves behind him a staggeringly varied discography with the orchestra, among which are several prized Rachmaninov CDs with tonights forces.
The Russian choral sound, of which the Chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre is an ideal exponent, is unlike any other operatic chorus Ive ever heard, and is a very different animal live from on disc. In the expanse of the Royal Albert Hall, I rather feel that at times they sacrificed precision (of rhythm and pitch) for full-throated volume but what a thrilling sound they make!
In the choral cantata Spring and in the climax of the evening, The Bells, their vivid and gripping singing instantly brought each scena to life, almost blowing us away with the force of the blazing fire in The Bells, and then drawing us inwards and downwards as the final funeral bell tolled away.
However, the Chorus one moment to shine by themselves the late Three Russian Songs, written when Rachmaninov was living in the U.S.A. was less effective, being more a place for choral virtuosity and fleetness of foot, rather than sheer power. The composer wrote for only the alto and bass sections, and I felt that the different possibilities of colour afforded by this werent explored.
On the other hand, the evenings three soloists, while coming very much from the same tradition as their colleagues in the Chorus, displayed much greater control and variety of expression. Most impressive was Alexei Tanovitski, a bass who has impressed as Boris Godunov and Ivan the Terrible his portrait, in Spring, of a husband driven almost to murder by his wifes infidelity was painful to watch and hear, for the right reasons, his voice dark yet bell-like and clear throughout its whole range.
Soprano Svetla Vassileva possesses a voice of rare silvery tone, and her control of it was breathtaking apart from the brief wedding section in The Bells, her moment was in Rachmaninovs famous Vocalise, heard here in the arrangement for soprano and pared-down orchestra. Vassileva was utterly ravishing in this, although the quick vibrato which gives her lower register such clarity did tend to broaden as she went above the stave, sometimes muddying the pitches. Tenor Misha Didyk had the least to do all night, opening The Bells with a dashing sleigh ride through the snow with the full noise of the orchestra directly behind him, he sometimes struggled to be heard, but for the most part his ringing tones, allied with a captivating, boyish air, had us hooked.
Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic were the driving force of the concert in particular, in the two dances from Rachmaninovs student opera Aleko, one could see and feel Nosedas visceral connection to the music, as he writhed and stamped and growled while almost physically pulling the sound out of his players. Subtlety was there in spades, too, and exquisite control over every aspect. For this, and everything else, grazie, Maestro.