Saturday 13 May 2017

Russian Romance: music for voice, cello, violin and piano at Kings Place

Joan Rodgers CBE (Photo Groves Artists)
Joan Rodgers CBE (Photo Groves Artists)
Rachmaninov, Arensky, Prokofiev, Viardot, Scriabin, Shostakovich; Joan Rodgers, Michael Mofidian, Sophie Rosa, Guy Johnston, Sholto Kynoch; Kings Place
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on May 13 2017
Star rating: 4.0

Singing cellos and dramatic sopranos, a fascinating exploration of Russian romance

This fascinating recital at Kings Place, a collaboration between Kings Place and the Oxford Lieder Festival, wove two different aspects of the romance into an intelligently structured evening. So we had Russian romances as songs, with Anton Arensky's Six Romances and Dmitri Shostakovich's Seven Romances on Poems by Alexander Blok, and we also had Pauline Viardot's lovely Russian setting The Stars
Guy Johnston
Guy Johnston
We also had instrumental romances, with cello and violin singing instead of the voice, with Rachmaninov's Romance in F minor for cello and piano, Alexander Scriabin's Romance, Rachmaninov's Romance No. 1 Op.6 from Deux Morceaux de Salon and Shostakovich's Romance No. 8 Op.97 from The Gadfly. Shostakovich's Seven Romances on Poems by Alexander Blok were written for the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and his wife, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, and we also heard another work written for Rostropovich, Sergei Prokofiev's Cello Sonata in C, Op.119.

The performers were soprano Joan Rodgers (in the Viardot and Shostakovich), bass-baritone Michael Mofidian (in the Arensky), cellist Guy Johnston, violinist Sophie Rosa and pianist Sholto Kynoch. This mixed line-up of performers comes about because when Shostakovich was asked to write a work for Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya, he ended up adding a violin and piano too (though all four performers only come together in the final movement).

Michael Mofidian
Michael Mofidian
So the programming took advantage of this line-up, and both the Viardot song and one of the Arensky romances used a cello obbligato. This did lead to a slightly bitty feel in the programme, particularly in the second half when we moved between different constellations of performers. But the end result was worth it with a lovely exploration of the singing qualities of the instruments, and a chance two hear three rarely performed vocal works

We started with Rachmaninov's gently melancholic Romance in F minor for cello and piano with Guy Johnston showing how the cello could sing beautifully, with a warmly veiled sound. Anton Arensky was Rachmaninov's teacher (though only 12 years older), himself a pupil of Rimsky Korsakov and a protegee of Tchaikovsky. His Six Romances, Op.38 were written in 1894 and the second, 'Lily of the Valley' uses a cello obbligato. The songs were performed by Michael Mofidian, a young bass-baritone who is a recent winner of the Oxford Lieder Young Artists Platform (we saw Mofidian at the 2015 Oxford Lieder Festival).

Rather impressively Mofidian sang the songs from memory, in clear confident Russian (though ironically this made us more aware of Mofidian's hands, as if he was not sure what to do with them.) The texts are all darkly romantic, with much thought about stars and star-light and lots of Russian philosophication ('futile vanity'). Mofidian sang with a lovely focused and vibrant tone, finding something expressively sexy in the songs particularly when he relaxed a little in the later songs. The overall tone of lyric melancholy made me think of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. Rather impressively Mofidian managed to make the philosophication rather engaging, and the later songs moved from dark intensity to rapture, reaching great lyric beauty at the end.

Prokofiev's cello sonata is a late work, dating from 1949. The opening introduction showed off the lovely dark chestnutty sound from Guy Johnston and his Tecchler cello. As the momentum in the movement gathered, the romanticism of Prokofiev's writing combined with an interesting spikiness in the harmony. The movement was by turns melancholy and skittish, eventually reaching what might be termed a big tune and some spectacular passagework leading to the magical conclusion. The middle Moderato was full of sly wit (and  lots of pizzicato) with a smile at the end. The final Allegro was full of lyrical charm, growing into a questioning melancholy, full of restless virtuoso bravura. Throughout the piece, Guy Johnston and Sholto Kynoch combined Prokofiev's lyrical questing with a finely sustained intensity of performance.

After the interval we heard Pauline Viardot's The Stars (setting a Russian text) for soprano, cello and piano, with a lovely interweaving of the two lyrical lines, soprano and cello. It was a piece full of lovely textures, and puzzling why we do not hear more of it.

Next came a sequence of instrumental romances. Guy Johnston and Sholto Kynoch brought out the lyrical charm of Scriabin's Romance, and then Sophie Rosa joined Sholto Kynoch for the intense melancholy of Rachmaninov's soulful Romance, following it with Shostakovich's Romance from The Gadfly, a piece which sees Shostakovich at his most sentimental.

Shostakovich wrote his Seven Romances on Poems by Alexander Blok specifically for Galina Vishnevskaya's voice, and throughout the performance we could hear the way the writing echoed very much the qualities of her voice. Joan Rodgers has a very different style of voice and she made the songs intelligently her own (she recorded the works in 2005 with the Beaux Arts Trio), though we were aware that a couple of the songs took her to the edge of what was possible (and at one point a catch in her throat meant stopping and re-starting). The logistics of having piano, soprano, violin and cello on stage meant that we rather felt that Rodgers was somewhat hidden behind the clutter of furniture, though she did her best to project and engage.

We opened with Ophelia's Song (for soprano and cello), Shostakovich's writing creating something eerie and unearthly about the combination of soprano and cello. The dramatic Gamaun, the Bird of Prophecy took Rodgers to her limits in Shostakovich's dramatic and angular writing, but she and Johnston really made it vivid stuff. For We were together, Rodgers was partnered with Rosa's violin, with the almost sentimental violin melody contrasting with the far darker thoughts of the soprano. Gloom Enwraps the Sleeping City featured soprano, cello and piano. This was more of a melancholy quiet invocation, with a terrific cello part full of double stopping. The Storm returned us to more edgy dramatic mode, a vivid description for soprano, violin and piano. Powerful stuff indeed. For the soulful Secret Signs we had Rodgers accompanied by the two string instruments, first one instrument then the other and finally both as Shostakovich really tightened the screw as the music intensity grew. For the final song, Music we had all four performers together for the first time. A long endless melody from violin and cello contrasted with the questioning soprano to create something rather unearthly, leading to violent episodes and an unsettling ending.

This was the first time I had come across Shostakovich's Blok romances and frankly I cannot wait to come across them again. All the performers gave powerful performances rightly making the cycle the climax of the evening.

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