Friday 2 March 2012

Rachmaninov at the Festival Hall

For their concert at the Festival Hall on Wednesday 29th February, the Bach Choir joined forces with Chetham's School of Music to present a spectacular all Rachmaninov programme. The centrepiece of the evening was Rachmaninov's choral symphony, The Bells; this was preceded by his piano concerto number 3 (which was written just before the choral symphony). The evening started with the Spring Cantata.

The Bach Choir were joined by the 50 strong Chetham's Chamber Choir thus giving us choral forces numbering some 250 people. Chetham's Symphony Orchestra was on a similarly generous scale, with the orchestra fielding around 100 musicians, including 20 first violins. Of course, Rachmaninov's The Bells needs this sort of amplitude, the piece is scored for quadruple wood-wind with plenty of brass and percussion. The reasons why the choral symphony is not more frequently performed are as much economic as anything else.

David Hill, musical director of the Bach Choir, conducted the two choral pieces; Hill, himself an ex-Chetham's student, is in fact also a Governor of Chetham's School of Music. William Dazeley sang the baritone solo in the Sprint Cantata, and was joined by Janice Watson and Peter Auty in  The Bells.

For the piano concerto the orchestra was joined by another ex-Chetham's student, pianist Leon McCawley, with the piece being conducted by Stephen Threlfall, musical director of Chetham's School of Music.

The Spring Cantata was something of a surprise, not at all the polite evocation of the wonders of spring that I had expected. Rachmaninov set a poem by Nikolai Nekrasov which deals with a man whose wife has had an affair and confessed it; whilst the two of them are isolated in their hut by the terrible winter, the man starts to get increasingly murderous thoughts. He is just about to reach for a knife and kill her when Spring comes and releases him. The cantata was written in the period after the failure of Rachmaninov's first symphony and its musical material is linked to that of the second piano concerto which he wrote at that time as a form of therapy.

The solo role was written for Chaliapin, for whom he also wrote roles in his two operas Francesca da Rimini and The Miserly Knight. The solo part, I think, ideally calls for a voice bigger and darker than William Dazeley's and at a couple of key moments he was rather covered by the orchestra and chorus. But he turned in a finely dramatic performance as the murderous cuckold; the cantata is close to an operatic scena and Dazeley brought out the full range of the piece. The chorus responded to the drama of the cantata with gusto, where at one point they have to encourage the soloist's intentions with the words 'Kill, kill the betrayer' and they seemed to relish the tricky Russian text (both choral works were sung in the original Russian); but Rachmaninov gives the chorus an accompanying role as well, backing the soloist, and here the choir proved that they could sing with beautiful subtlety. Throughout the evening the choir sang with a bright, nicely focussed sound and seemed on top form.

The large orchestra got its featured moment in the opening, where Rachmaninov writes an orchestra introduction describing the spring awakening, building up gradually to the huge first chorus entry. Chetham's Symphony Orchestra were simply amazing, for long periods of time you simply forgot their youth and were able to enjoy a superb performance.

In the 3rd piano concerto the slightly reduced orchestral forces continued to show their mettle in some fine accompaniment to Leon McCawley's solo piano. McCawley brought out the romantic, poetic side of the piano part, seemingly making light of the multiple cascades of notes. Rachmaninov was a superb pianist and wrote the piano part for himself to play at the work's premiere in 1909 as part of a tour of the USA which he was undertaking. But, as with any Rachmaninov work from this period, the poetic moments are mixed in with barnstorming ones and big romantic tunes. Whilst the strings didn't quite provide the sort of big, well upholstered string sound which the best professional group can, they clearly responded to Rachmaninov's romanticism and sang the big tunes finely. Their performance had a maturity to it which belied their age.

McCawley was playing a Steinway piano and to my ears it seemed more attuned to the quieter, more detailed passages, the big barnstorming moments didn't quite resonate in the way I would have liked; or perhaps I've been listening to  too many recordings with the balance adjusted in favour of the piano.

Accompanying is always one of the trickiest roles for an orchestra to undertake, particularly in a big Romantic piece where tempi are mobile and very flexible. But to the young musicians' credit, neither McCawley nor conductor Stephen Threlfall seemed to be adjusting their performance to suit, all was dynamic, flexible and vibrant; though there were one or two corners where the orchestra did not quite follow quickly enough where McCawley and Threlfall led.

Rachmaninov's The Bells is based on a Russian adaptation by Konstantin Balmont of poetry by Edgar Allan Poe. Even before reading the poetry, Rachmaninov was thinking symphonically and there work is divided into 4 movements which function structurally in symphonic fashion. The opening movement, for tenor and chorus, describes silver sleigh bells which evoke childhood but also sleep and oblivion. The second movement has the soprano and chorus meditating on mellow wedding bells. The next movement, a brilliant scherzo full of demons and horror, is for chorus alone, describing loud alarum bells. Then finally baritone and chorus join together for the mournful iron bells. Though the subjects are varied and we clearly get different moods and movements, there is a vein of melancholy running through the whole piece, even the wedding bells have a curiously disconcerting quality.

Peter Auty coped well with the high tenor part in the opening movement though, as with the solo part in the cantata, you could imagine it being sung by a more Russian sounding voice. Watson was beautifully eloquent in the second movement  and Dazeley was darkly brooding, describing the mournful funeral bell which leads to eternal sleep.

The Bells is a tricky piece, and the chorus's role was made trickier by the use of the original version of the third movement, which Rachmaninov later simplified. But the chorus were on sparkling form, giving us some fine choral singing and rendering the third movement with brilliant, demonic energy. Throughout they were performing to a very high standard indeed, and responded to David Hill's enthusiastic direction, as did the young musicians of the orchestra who whisked through Rachmaninov's vivid orchestral writing with apparent ease. The young orchestral players were finely disciplined and very committed, but also patently enjoying themselves and this showed in the brilliant energy which they brought to the work.

This was an inspiring evening; not just for the fine accounts of two neglected Rachmaninov choral pieces with some stunning singing, but also for the superb and finely mature playing which Hill and Threlfall brought out in their young musicians. I do hope that we get to hear this partnership again.

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