Sunday 10 December 2017

Russian Revolution Centenary Concert: Ilona Domnich, Paul Whelan, Nigel Foster & Gabriel Woolf

Arthur Ransome in Russia in 1917
Arthur Ransome in Russia in 1917
Rachmaninov, Borodin, Mussorgsky, Alyabyev, Tchaikovsky; Ilona Domnich, Paul Whelan, Nigel Foster; London Song Festival at Hinde Street Methodist Church
Reviewed by Anthony Evans on Dec 8 2017 
Star rating: 4.5
A rare & intimate evening, first-hand accounts of the Russian Revolution interwoven with song

The legend displayed outside the Hinde Street Methodist Church read "a place to rest, think, dream, be still", and there was plenty to think about in this final concert of the London Song Festival on 8 December 2017. A commemoration of the Russian revolution, first hand accounts spoken by Gabriel Woolf were interwoven with songs, performed by Ilona Domnich, Paul Whelan and Nigel Foster, that whilst not coincident with the ravages of the revolution gave, more broadly, an appreciation of the abstruse nature of the Russian character.

“You will not grasp her with your mind
Or cover with a common label”
(Fyodor Tyutchev)

The inscrutable Soul of Russia, to this Britisher, seems chock full of contradictions.
Trotsky on his train near the front-lines c.1919-1921
Trotsky on his train near the front-lines c.1919-1921
The notion that all that is done is done for the better, is that optimism or fatalism? Duality seems to be an abiding feature. There’s a cold directness combined with a warm unexpected generosity. Over analytical to a man their pessimism permeates all strands of their culture - “We wanted the best, but it turned out like always” (Viktor Stepanovich Chernomyrdin) and yet there is an acknowledgement too of the workings of unknown supernatural forces. From an absence of order comes the deeply rooted fellowship of collectivism "Better have a hundred friends than a hundred roubles" and all wrapped up in a keen sense of big nature The “Russian people are altogether spacious people, just like their land” (Dostoyevsky).

The elegantly constructed programme explored this rich panoply with such élan that even I might convince myself that I’d come a little closer to understanding the workings of the Russia psyche. Nigel Foster Director and Pianist brought together the soprano Ilona Domnich chosen as a high flyer by Opera Now, bass-baritone Paul Whelan winner of Cardiff Singer of the World Lieder prize and Gabriel Woolf – giddy fan boy moment – recognised the world over as Sutekh the Destroyer from the Doctor Who adventure Pyramids of Mars. I could have squeed.

Gabriel Woolf’s poignant and witty storytelling lead us on a journey through not only the depredations wrought during the revolution but also the indefatigable resilience of a nation. The dignity and indignities, the instinct for co-operation, the macabre humour amongst the appalling privations and even the minutiae of savagery.

Paul Whelan’s charismatic orotund bass practically made my fillings rattle. His vibrant tone and rich palate of vocal colour was mesmerising. A riveting storyteller, in Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death he was at once intensely menacing then passionate, earnest, unctuous, even languorous. Ilona Domnich, no lesser a word painter, was apparently recovering from a malady. Quite frankly if you can sing like that when you’re off-colour that much talent and charisma shouldn’t be allowed. She was fantastically poised and restrained. A heart meltingly lustrous tone and a technique deployed with such a gentleness of touch in The Nightingale it was exhilarating.

Underpinned by Nigel Foster’s decorous programme and sensitive playing this was a rare and intimate evening. My only disappointment – that this was the last night of the festival. I came a bit late to the party but I’ll be back next year for sure.

Rachmaninov: Spring Waters; Loves flame
Borodin: Song of the Dark Forest
Rachmaninov: The little Island; Two Partings
Anon: The Song of the Volga Boatmen
Tchaikovsky: None but the Lonely Heart
Mussorgsky: Lullaby from Songs and Dances of Death; Serenade from Songs and Dances of Death
Alyabyev: The Nightingale
Rachmaninov: By the Grave; Believe it not; Dreams
Tchaikovsky; I bless you, Forests
Mussorgsky; Trepak from Songs and Dances of Death
Rachmaninov; Sorrow in springtime; We will rest
Mussorgsky; Field-Marshall from Songs and Dances of Death
Rachmaninov; Vocalise

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